Ecological Regeneration for the Future of Cities

Cities present some of the biggest challenges andopportunities of our age. We are living in unprecedented times where there are a plethora of complicated, intertwined problems, spearheaded by the climate crisis, that have no straightforward solution that we need to tackle collectively, as a civilization, to ensure the continuity and wellbeing of our human race on Earth. Urban areas are at the forefront of solving such global issues as 57% of people live in cities, a number that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050 and reach 85% by 2100. This growth is currently not happening in an even and equitable way. The gap between urban and rural areas is constantly increasing. 

There are currently 47 megacities in the world with more than 10M population and they continue to grow in informal, often problematic ways. At the same time, 60% of the cities are located in coastal areas, and 10% of the global population are at risk of being displaced by the rising sea levels. Thus, many people will have to be displaced or adapt to flooding due to global warming. Cities have to be reimagined because in most cases, they are the places where such problems will be faced and solutions will be implemented. Because of that, cities play an important part in building a healthier and thriving future for humanity.

There is no one vision for the future of cities, and no one-size-fits-all solution as cities are as diverse as the people who make them and should reflect the needs, priorities, culture, history, geography, and social norms of the societies who inhabit them. Nevertheless, there are certain guidelines or areas that should be considered in every city when making decisions around wellbeing, policies, issues, urban planning, zoning and so forth to ensure that we collectively build a future that works well for all. 

1.    Cities for Ecological Regeneration

Most concepts around the future of cities focus on “smart cities” as this has been the predominant urban discourse for the past decade. Even though incorporating technology is an important part of the progression of cities and in building the future of cities, it is not exclusive, and is simply the tools towards reaching our goals and not the goal itself. One crucial focus of cities should be the ecological side. In the development of cities, we’ve mainly had the separation between ecology and metropolis. We’ve seen some green ‘injections’ to the concrete jungles in the forms of parks, tree-lined streets, and public spaces, but they are often seen as additions to cities that are usually planned by themselves, without connection to nature. 

It is time we shift the focus from the city as its own closed system to the city as part of the wider fabric that is our ecological system. With this new mindset, we can start to see cities as vital agents in pushing the regeneration of our environment and natural ecosystems. We can start thinking about how cities can position themselves in the fight against climate change and design themselves to serve this wider purpose. This could be achieved through stronger connections between the urban areas and their rural surroundings that are mutually beneficial for both. In some cities, this could mean increased densities in urban centers while preserving lush, verdant forests, green roofs, urban farming, choosing appropriate thermal insulating materials, ‘rewilding’ and building native urban forests, community gardens, and so forth. The specific details will be different, but the same guiding concept will be the same – that of cities as regenerative powerhouses.

We need to heal nature in our cities so we can build a better and healthier life for the people who live in them. They need to have access to nature for their physical and mental health. Public spaces in cities should be abundant and provide access to nature, which should also be integrated with buildings and infrastructure. We can also create more natural habitats that filter water and provide conditions for other species to live in. The requirements for green spaces around and in buildings should be strictly imposed. Public parks should be protected and expanded. Everyone should have access to green spaces for their personal well-being. A healthy living environment becomes about the harmony between the built and natural environments.

The return to nature has been accelerated by the COVID pandemic. It has made people realize how important it is for our physical and mental health to spend time in nature. The opportunity to work remotely allowed people to make a choice as to where and how they want to live. For many people who have the freedom to work from anywhere, the preferred choice has been to live in an environment which is closer to nature and in small communities. 

Cities need to improve the quality of the air,as it has a direct impact on our health. Electric cars will decrease air pollution in city centers. Creating more green spaces and having more trees in cities will also naturally filter the air. In addition, new technologies that are being developed to filter the air could capture CO2 and store it in buildings, which contribute also to the Net Zero goals.

Water purification and recycling are other focal issues. Instead of buying mineral water and generating plastic waste, urban planners have to ensure a clean supply of water. The water from the sink should be improved and be good for drinking. Pipes should be repaired and changed to avoid leakages, absorption of toxic materials, and ensure durability. Our focus should be to work with nature and not against it. We need to work both on the natural and built environments as they are closely connected habitats for people. We can plant more trees (as for example the Bloomberg 1 million tree project), create more forests, clean the rivers and the air. We need to heal our planet by protecting the soil and rivers. Every building should have some space with nature, which could be on the roofs, terraces, gardens and nearby parks. Preferably, we should use native species so they would not require excessive watering and maintenance. The existence of human civilization needs to be in harmony with nature to ensure its survival and flourishment.  

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