Three ideas about cities: focus on what’s important; embrace constant change; think about generating rather than simply sustaining.
Three ideas about Cities
I believe that the way we use our cities needs to change if they are to flourish into the future. We need to find a way to make them produce – rather than consume – energy, water, food and mate-rials; and consume – rather than produce – waste. And of course our cities should meet the needs of all their residents to live long, healthy, productive and fulfilling lives.
These are not trivial challenges that can be overcome soon. Cities are so interesting because these challenges never go away. But we have to do more than simply doing again what we have done in the past, because we know that what we have done in the past simply won’t do.
Focus on the important
We know that we value what we measure. The problem is that we tend to confine ourselves to the things that are easy to measure. This has led to an environment where financial outcomes trump all others. If our focus is on living long, healthy, productive and fulfilling lives then we have to ask if financial measures provide an adequate guide to achieving this. David Simon’s, There are now two Americas. My Country is a Horror Show, a caustic assessment of the impact of an exclusive focus on economic success. Let’s be clear on what success looks like as we continue to develop our cities and point our policies, strategies and actions at achieving that success. The OECD’s Better Life Index, for instance, provides a comparative measure of wellbeing across countries. Lateral Economics’ HALE Index provides a comparative measure of wellbeing across Australian Cities.
Cities as complex systems in constant flux
A good starting point is to think of our cities as complex systems that develop and evolve, because that’s what they are. And if cities are always changing, we can help them change in ways we want them to.
A first step is to be clear about what our cities are for, how we want them to operate, how we want them to develop, and how we want to use them. Then we can think about how we design and re-design our cities and how they operate. We can do this at metropolitan, precinct and project scales. And we can work hard to mobilise and support communities, as they play a critical part in healthy cities.
We need to recognise our cities’ complexity and stop trying to ignore that complexity by thinking and acting in silos. This will only ever result in partial success and missed opportunities.
The idea of permanence that underpins much of what we do to and in our cities has become a constraint. Just now, we think of every investment, every development, every change as something that will outlive us. So we are paralysed into inaction as we search for the perfect, or at least best possible response. How would we act if we thought of many of our choices as temporary, of being subject to change if circumstances change? How would we balance a sense of impermanence with the real need to feel settled and secure?
What kinds of Cities do we want?
How would we act if our cities were centres of productivity rather than sinks of consumption? This would involve moving beyond simply aiming for a ‘sustainable’ future. The over-used word ‘sustainability’ is infused with the idea of minimising damage. This is not just inadequate but inappropriate for the task we face. Instead, we need to reframe the challenges that cities face around the idea of increasing potential, of improving the environment in which they operate. This is an essential first step in overcoming most people’s instinctive resistance to change. We need to find sustainability heaven rather than sustainability hell.
An associated question is how we shape our cities and how we manage and use them so that they are as resilient as they can be. Our cities are growing ever more complex and the external environment in which they exist is changing and becoming less predictable. We need our cities to be able to respond to external shocks effectively so that people can flourish in the face of emerging challenges.