Think of a city. A city you enjoy and has positive associations for you. Which comes to mind? The name of the city might come up immediately but in fact it’s most probably not the city itself you think of, but rather the stories you associate it with.
Stories or certain moments you’ve personally experienced during your stay or images attached to it. No matter whether you think of your hometown, an iconic city like Paris, London, New York or Singapore, or any city you’ve visited, it really is the personal stories and imaginations that shape our memories of a city. Certainly, the particular shape of the built environment or the geography can be very different from place to place and that has an enormous influence on our perception. Our individual storybook of a city, however, is made of social interactions, cultural experiences, and even more so the encounter of something we haven’t seen or experienced before. Things that indeed surprise us and that trigger inspiration.
A city without any personal association is literally just an anonymous assembly of buildings or streets. Next to the provisions of basic services such as access to food, water, clean air or sanitation, it’s the human interaction which determines the perceived quality of life of any place. The British author Charles Landry has coined the term “creative city” as a great vision for urban centres of the futures and he describes it as the “software” of a city. When urban engineering, different technologies and buildings are the hardware of a city, the creativity resulting from the human interaction happening within should be considered as the software.
For the people cities can be a fantastic place — or a nightmare
City are centres of human activities and therefore can be a fantastic thing with the right balance of economic development, cultural stimulus, density and intact urban biodiversity. But they can also be a nightmare for hundreds of thousands of people where this balance is lost.
Having said that, it’s obvious that many cities seem to have clearly prioritised hardware over software in recent decades. This, in many cases, leads to a decline in quality of urban life; a priority for individual car use over public transport and bicycles, standard architecture over individual designs, offices over housing flats, or shopping malls over cultural spaces. These are the opposite of truly creative urban centres.
And in many urban agglomerations, especially emerging megacities in the Global South, day-to-day life for inhabitants is not about what living quality they aspire to, but literally about surviving. Many areas of these cities provide only miserable living and health conditions. They are suffering from heavy pollution and rapid growth of informal settlements and unprecedented environmental degradation. In many cases, failing authorities are at the root of poor economic development and outrageous social injustice for a majority of city dwellers.
And all cities have a huge environmental footprint too, reaching way beyond their geographical scale. This is reflected in high average levels of personal consumption and the efficient supply of a great variety of services at comparatively low per-capita costs. Apart from a near monopoly on the use of fossil fuels, metals and concrete, an urbanising humanity now consumes nearly half of nature’s annual photosynthetic capacity as well.
“What we need is a role model for cities that combines the social, economic and ecological dimensions of sustainability with the vision of a city for people which embeds a vivid cultural life and a culture of creativity in the way it operates.”
This historic development represents a fundamental, systemic change in the relationship between humans and nature. Urban-based economic activities account for 55% of Gross National Product (GNP) in the least developed countries, 73% in middle income countries and 85% in industrialised countries. And the larger and the richer the city, the more it tends to draw on nature’s capacity from across the world rather than its own capacities and local hinterland.
Wanted: a new role model for cities combining sustainability with regeneration
What we need is a role model for cities that combines the social, economic and ecological dimensions of sustainability with the vision of a city for people which embeds a vivid cultural life and a culture of creativity in the way it operates. Cities that actively help restore damaged ecosystems and (re)generate urban living quality. This means that we have to question the terminology of ‘sustainable city’ since it’s not about sustaining a status quo of nowadays cities. In fact, when the term sustainability emerged, there was a lot more to sustain than today. It’s about establishing an ongoing process of regeneration. Regenerating the urban space in the spirit of the above-mentioned creativity dimension. Regenerating the resources that are absorbed. And regenerating the quality of urban life. A truly regenerative city. ‘Regenerative cities’ basically means to develop an environmentally enhancing, restorative relationship between cities and the natural system whose resources they depend on as well as fostering urban communities where people benefit from this process.
Operationalising and implementing the concept of regenerative cities requires the greening of the production, consumption and construction sectors as well as a resource-efficient use of materials and natural goods. And a design thinking that puts the people at the heart of every planning process. Therefore, the planning of new cities as well as the retrofitting of existing ones needs to undergo a profound paradigm shift. The urban metabolism must be transformed from an inefficient and wasteful linear input-output system into a resource-efficient and regenerative, circular system, in combination with a spatial planning process that accommodates enough space for creative and unplanned development.
Establishing an ongoing process of regeneration
I firmly believe that such a regenerative city can indeed provide a win-win scenario with significant environmental, social and economic benefits, and is essential for both the people who live in cities and the natural systems they depend on. The regenerative city vision needs to be driven by strong political leadership capable of setting ambitious yet realistic goals, able to gather momentum across society and mobilise different stakeholders towards such a common vision.
Setting out clearly defined roadmaps and measurable targets to ensure implementation of policy measures will be essential. Also, establishing task forces and capacity building initiatives that oversee and support the implementation process would be important. The quality and seriousness of these measures will determine the success of any city. They’ll decide over the quality of life in the city — and the stories we will be associating any city with in the future.
This article will be published in The Beam #7 — Subscribe now for more