Reshaping Cities

Photo credits: Construção Sustentável
Photo credits: Construção Sustentável

I am a student of Environmental Economics. When I tell people this, I can almost see them conjuring images of natural beauty being destroyed and me fighting to protect it with tooth and nail. That is not me; I am not an activist, nor a protectionist nor conservationist. I believe that all those things are very important, but they are not me. My interest is mostly in cities and their interaction with the environment. Sustainable construction, renewable prosperity and urban resilience are some of my areas of interest, and it is a belief in my core that cities do not need to be the destruction of our environment or even carbon neutral. In the words of Michael Braungart “I [am] tired of working hard to be less bad. I [want] to be involved in making buildings, even products, with completely positive intentions.

When most people think of cities they think of many good things such as jobs, connection, quality of life, activity, interest, the hustle and bustle of never having to stop of always being awake no matter the time. However bad things come to mind too, like unclean air, polluted rivers and a lot of cars as well as crime, expensive life and overcrowded places. In general the few places that have good environmental connotation are seen as safe havens or lungs.

That is history, where cities were built with technology, money and knowledge of the time, but the time has come to reverse the trend. Even today that initial vision sounds utopian.

The know-how of sustainable construction exists and this includes doing construction that isn’t just carbon neutral but that can actually give energy back to the grid. Buildings that need hardly any heating, or even vertical farms, vertical forests or urban fish farms. But I’ll stop fantasising about all that and say what can be done with current technologies; I am a business student and investment is still needed, as is the talk about why it needs to be done.

To highlight the need, the problems of three different cities will be explored: Beijing’s air pollution, São Paulo’s transportation problems and Mumbai’s slums.

Beijing needs reform; as one of the world’s biggest capitals, it is seen as making the same mistakes that have been made in London and New York with smog which kick started reform to limit pollution in major cities. The same reform that started pollution exporting (another article). It’s just worse now because the health hazards are well known and documented, like Particulate Matter (PM). PM 2.5 in particular is so fine it can aggravate asthma and decrease lung function, as well as acidify lakes and deplete nutrients in soil. People live in cities in order to have the opportunity for better lives, better jobs and more choice, but in cities like Beijing (and New Delhi) this choice shortens their lives. During the Great Smog of ’52 in London up to 12,000 deaths were directly linked to the occurrence spanning over 5 days.

As much as environmental issues are problems for the world we live in, they also affect our personal health very hard and Beijing being a more extreme example of smog is just one indication. Cities around the world have less aggravated problems of the same type, but even in London they always have to monitor the PM occurrence close to the busiest roads so that this doesn’t happen. Smog is a thing of the past in our minds, but its presence is still felt all around the world and it is also impacting developed cities, as it has been reported in the Business Insider (http://www.businessinsider.com/china-pollution-is-blanketing-americas-west-coast-2014-1) that 1/4th of smog in LA is due to Chinese pollution (caused mostly to produce goods shipped to the USA). To combat that there are many possible strategies, including more green space, even green roofs, investment in filtering technologies, taking cars off the road and many more. But the seriousness and health hazards of this indicate a need for change.

Being in São Paulo for a while, you’ll stop complaining about the horrendous traffic of your hometown (this is assuming you’re not in Cairo or Moscow, in which case I’m sorry for you as well). The innovation they came up with to solve it for rich businessmen is what merits a special place, as they created a network of helipads all over the city so that helicopters can easily circumvent traffic. This invention is also increasing pollution. But to be fair, in a city where pollution kills more than car accidents, what is a little extra CO2 from a chopper?

This is another extreme example of a city and its problems, but no city in the world really acts against it fully. There have been cities making public transport free (Tallinn), cities limiting access to specific more polluted parts (London, Athens), cities putting electrical vehicle points everywhere (Lisbon, Malaga), cities creating easy bicycle pickup schemes (Paris, Barcelona) and many more attempts including taking official cars off roads (Beijing) and putting prices on entering the city or heightening prices to park in it. But these are all examples of working hard to be less bad.

In Mumbai there is a city has been born within the city. Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums, houses up to 1 million migrants from rural areas looking for a better life. Facilities, and living conditions are abysmal, space is scarce and all kinds of pollution pervade from cooking, to exhaust and heating. Apart from putting a strain on the city’s environment, they are bad for the people’s health too. The development of these slums also suggests unpreparedness for the influx of migrants around the world. Even near Madrid there are still such communities today.

There have been many ways of dealing with these little cities, from actually attributing land to the inhabitants, giving them ownership and thus responsibility over it – which many times has led to an increase in situational improvement as the dwellers started taking care of a place they could actually stay in- as has been done in Orangi, Karachi. But the method of eliminating slums by physically removing their existence has also been tried and tested, like in Delhi and all over China.

Dharavi has been under political scrutiny for a few years now to understand what to do with what could be prime real estate right in the centre of Mumbai. The answer to that dilemma remains unknown, since human rights and economics are both in the balance. It is difficult for Mumbai to reason investing in an area that they cannot tax, but it is also difficult to reason giving the land away without investment or involvement.

Cities have many more problems than just these, but the aforementioned ones are the most obvious ones, the ones that seem to create the most damage either to the fabric of society, to health or to the environment. But these issues they need to change, they need to be solved.

As such solutions need to happen, the direction these solutions need to be placed in is towards making our cities resilient. These resilient cities are cities that are taking the local setting and temperature fluctuations into account when building, and using the right techniques and materials for that, cities that are intelligent in their use of decentralised systems to produce energy from endogenous renewable resources, cities that are connected within the fabric and prepared for the worst. These are cities with little corruption and more monitoring, cities that act for their inhabitants and that are efficient and effective in management and environmental practice.

It is a utopia to imagine a city that can interact with the environment and with it’s inhabitants and resist the worst weather conditions, but a lot of progress is being made. Cities like Berlin have some of the best legislation on water retention and energy production and in Milan an actual vertical forest is being built. Steps in the right direction are happening, but is a vision of carbon positivity so ludicrous? A city that can produce its own food and/or energy? That is part of my dream and part of my mission. My name is Benjamin Tirone Nunes and I am a city dweller and an environmentalist.

Benjamin Tirone Nunes.

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