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Urban Sustainability, Megacity Leapfrogging
Alex Steffen, 22 Jan 05

The group EcoCity Cleveland has published a terrific overview of what cities are doing to make themselves more sustainable. We've covered a bunch of these efforts before, but it's great to see them listed in one place:


Solid waste and recycling division. Portland has been ranked first among U.S. metropolitan areas for recycling with a waste recovery rate of 53.6 percent.

Transportation. The city’s Office of Transportation, Metro, and the Tri-Met transit agency have led the nation in linking transportation to land use and livability. Light rail transit, new trolley car lines downtown, a model transit mall, downtown free-ride zones, bicycle and pedestrian ways, 100 percent bike-accessible buses and rail, dedicated bus-ways, transit shelters with video monitors and next-bus information, and transit oriented development incentives have contributed to the national recognition of Portland as a leader in getting people out of cars.

This list of urban innovations is part of What cities can do:

Increasingly, the fate of the planet depends on the future of cities. Cities are where most people live, where most resources and energy are consumed, and where most wastes are produced. To avert further destruction of the earth's life-support systems, cities must be transformed into places where people can live healthier lives while reducing their ecological impacts.

While EcoCity Cleveland is, not surprisingly, focused on Cleveland, much of this information could apply anywhere in the developed world.

The megacities of the developing world, though, are a whole different question.

Our popular imagination of the developing world revolves around old National Geographic pictures of rural farmers, traditional ways and rural life. That picture is over fifty years out of date. The reality is that the statistically average person in the developing world is a young woman living in a city, working at the margins of the global economy.

Ninety percent of population growth by 2030 is expected to concentrate in cities. The megacities of Asia, Africa, the Mideast and Latin America are expected to swell by almost another two billion people. That translates to over four billion developing world megacity-dwellers, the equivalent of building another Los Angeles every three months for the next 25 years.

Supplying those megacities is one of the planet's biggest work orders. Sixty percent of all the water used on the planet already goes to cities -- either directly in pipelines or indirectly through the irrigation it takes to grow the food they eat -- and water demand is expected to grow steadily over the next two decades. Most global estimates tie three-quarters of all pollution to cities, and again many expect that share to rise. If the current rate of efficiency gains holds steady, rather than improving rapidly in Tech Bloom fashion, the world will use at least 60% more electricity by 2030 -- 90% of that in cities.

Redistributing the future to create bright green urban prosperity is a job of mind-bending complexity. It can only be done through innovation and collaboration of a scale and speed never seen before.

If we could deconstruct a city like we might strip an engine, and lay all the parts out on a cloth on the lawn (a very big cloth, a very big lawn), we'd be stunned at how many moving parts any given city has. Leaving completely aside the most interesting part of urban life, the people and their relationships to one another (for cities are, above all else, the original social software), we'd find first the large systems: here the massive pipes that bring in water, branching out, delivering it to taps, there, the dirty river, a plastic bucket, and a long walk; the sewers that carry sewage and stormwater and garbage off to the ocean or nearest river (sometimes flowing through some sort of treatment plant, but more often than not taking the express route down a ditch by the side of the road); the transportation systems, those overlapping grids and weird root-like structures of roads and train tracks and subways and flight paths and sidewalks and dirt tracks; the power systems, copper strung out in a patchwork, in some places crisscrossing the entire city and humming day and night, in others being sort of more for show, reaching only the richest quarters and running only rarely; the communications systems, spun glass and radio waves and satellite signals here, the weekly mail delivery by bicycle there; public services, like health (sometimes 911 call centers and networks of hospitals with specialist wards, sometimes a one-room clinic, or drop-in herbalist shops) and security (from video cameras, metal detectors and forensic labs to a big guy with a underfed dog and a rusty Kalishnakov); commerce and the pulsing flows of stuff it squirts through the world's supermarkets and souks, fast food franchises and roadside hibachi stands, couture boutiques and rag shops, on and on in an infinite variety and unimaginably massive volume. Finally, the buildings themselves, which, even in the fastest-growing cities, are seen in time-lapse to sprout slowly and stay still a very long time (while around them flow the rickety and barely seen slums and shanty-towns and tent cities -- the homeless huddled in doorways and shivering under cardboard rarely register at all). The physical systems of large cities are the most complicated machines we have ever built.

And no two are alike. Every city is a one-off. Even those cities modeled off an earlier one (as Shanghai was built to resemble a European city, or as American sprawl is built off a very limited number of templates) end up entirely unique as people live in them, and use them, and change them. People exist who know everything about their cities, who know them deeply and intimately, who know them like they know a lover's body and thoughts -- who could tell you the history, who could reveal the hidden, who could explain what makes that city itself -- but they are extremely rare, and their work is the work of a lifetime. People who know several cities this well are more rare than those who can both run a 100 meter dash in under ten seconds and do calculus in their heads.

So when we talk about the transformation of cities, we're talking not about one process, but a thousand simultaneous and unique undertakings. Each city has its own possibilities, possibilities which can usually only be seen by those deeply enmeshed in the life of that city. Even where a tool is universally useful, its actual use will be always and everywhere particular to place. If redesigning the city is seen as pursuing some Modernist dream of ideal perfection, we've failed before we started.

There is no bright green City of the Future, shining in chrome abstraction. But if we don't screw up too badly, there can be a bright green Shanghai in the future, and a bright green Lagos and Sao Paulo and Los Angeles. And in order for those future cities to thrive, they each will need to rethink themselves in ways no other city ever could have.

So the task is not to assemble a pre-built model, a City of the Future kit in a box. It is something much more difficult: the task is to assemble toolboxes which each city can use according to its own genius and inspiration, and to network the planet's urban innovators together so that they can quickly, easily, and constantly compare work and share ideas.

Some of the tools are close to hand. Many cities, for example, don't have much in the way of power grids at all. What they do have is often woefully decrepit, and serves only older or richer neighborhoods. In cities like these, the advantages of distributed power systems are obvious.

In a similar way, in many emerging mega-cities the centralized infrastructures for providing water and removing trash and sewage have all but collapsed or were never built to begin with. In places like these, existing answers abound and make real sense: building cisterns and swales to catch and channel rainwater; using living machines and composting toilets to turn waste back into soil and fuel; planting roof gardens and street trees and creating hillside orchards with fruit and nut trees to provide food, clean the air and check erosion; building new homes to take advantage of passive heating and cooling (for which there are often ingenious local traditional approaches) -- all offer clear advantages.

But it's the convergence of ambitious motives, neobiological means and leapfrogging opportunity which will define the developing world over the next decades. This megacity future is going to spawn a whole array of new possibilities, ones we can't anticipate from our armchairs in the developed world. It's already begun. In Malaysia, young architects came up with a design for a home with giant solar panels which open like petals as the day warms, shading the home and capturing electricity, and then fold back up as the evening cools, bringing the colder night air into the house and making the surrounding garden a pleasant place to sit, drink tea and star-gaze. In Goa, India, a team of designers and engineers has created a city plan to use future growth to turn Goa into a neo-biological mix of human and wild, a high-density city with a blend of traditional style and high-tech efficient systems, throughout which rice paddies, fish ponds, and vegetable gardens interpenetrate in a "spine-and-filament" pattern like that of a fish's gills, while surrounding forests provide fresh water and clean air. In Harare, Zimbabwe, architects have built a biomimetic version of an African termite mound. Their Eastgate building copies the way termites use earth masses and ventilation tunnels to maintain their mounds at a constant temperature. Consequently, the Eastgate needs no air conditioning system, despite the blistering Harare heat.

This is all just the beginning. The new urban future, in full bloom, may be nearly unfathomable to us in the old-fashioned North. The future doesn't think like Americans do: the future is unfolding in places which have mobile phones but still rely on the arrival of the caravans, which sell computer chips in souks and bazaars, where the sandalwood incense burns in five hundred year old temples but videogame championships are broadcast on TV. A bright green future will smell of curry and plantains, soy sauce and chipolte, and sound more like Moroccan rap and twangy Mongol pop than Mozart. We don't know -- we can't know -- how the next global generation of megacity urbanists will best use the possibilities unfolding in front of us. I suspect that the best research and development won't be done by established professionals in developed world think-tanks, corporate labs or universities. It'll be done on the streets of developing world cities, by a younger generation just now coming into it's own.

They don't need our answers, they need the tools for finding and sharing their own answers. Redistribute the tools for invention and innovation, and they will remake the world.

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Well done Alex!

I just got back from Karachi - a megacity in deep and dire need of leapfrogging. I came back quite laden down with doubts about how the heck anything is going to change. I feel that for the very largest developing world megacities the challenge is beyond mind boggling, it's close to impossible. Cities like Goa and Harare are villages when compared to the Karachi's and Mumbai's of the world. However your article definitely starts to paint a useful and very hopeful picture which is comendable.

Mike Davies gives us a very interesting if somewhat sobering perspective on the development of third world megacities in "Planet of Slums" (

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 23 Jan 05

The mega-city, as a problem, is almost impossible to grasp. Solutions will be found and implemented at multiple scales, from household to region. A Pattern Language for sustainable cities, beginning with efforts such as Alexander et al's original, or the work of the Ecotrust of Portland, OR, may be a way to construct a kind of DNA for something as complicated as a megacity.

Posted by: David Foley on 24 Jan 05

As a Portlander I appreciate the favorable light you are giving my city. Much of our reputation for transportation options and environmental quality stems also from natural, inherent advantages such as a mild climate. Riding a bicycle regularly might be much more difficult in Detroit or Minneapolis. Also we have been able to emphasize urban planning because our frequent recessions give us breathing room from the type of crisis management that more robust cities must implement. Still, please enjoy observing our example.

Having said that I believe that the future of successful urbanization lies in completely new cities. Just as Portland was founded by two New Englanders specifically desiring to found a city, so could new cities, in developing countries, be sited with many factors in mind to ensure success. And then they can be planned to "leapfrog" the problems plaguing others. I mean: durable housing, pedestrian friendly transportation, safety from environmental calamity, connection to corridors, preservation of agriculture, natural habitat and water resources, and opportunities for private and collaborative enterprise. I think it is going to be very hard to make much improvement in the existing cities if the population keeps exploding.

Posted by: Ron Swaren on 2 Feb 05



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