The Future of Cities: Greening Urban Growth

With millions moving from suburbs and rural areas into big cities, we’ll need creativity and innovation to sustainably manage rapid urban growth and revitalize flagging suburbs.

Forget paying for gas, mowing the lawn or spending hours of your week commuting to a faraway job. Why bother with all of that when you could hop on a bus or train at a moment’s notice, walk to the corner store, enjoy beautifully landscaped public parks and have all of the entertainment and culture you could wish for, right outside your door? There are plenty of good reasons why cities are looking so attractive, especially to youths who grew up in car-centric suburbs. But as cities begin to groan under the weight of all these new residents, the rising popularity of urban life begs the question: is rapid urbanization really a good thing? Can we manage the growth of cities sustainably, while maintaining all of the benefits?

Growing Pains

For years, urban advocates and economists have predicted that the trend of moving from cities to suburbs was about to reverse, and in a big way. The 2010 Census seemed to prove these predictions overblown, with suburbs continuing to grow while urban populations generally stayed about the same. But there was one notable trend: an increase in residential growth in city cores. The New York Times reported in November 2011 that, for the first time in decades, the number of people moving to New York City was higher than the number of people moving out.

Outside America, the trend is definitely picking up steam. In 2008, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population was living in cities. By 2030, this number is expected to reach nearly 5 billion – and a lot of this growth will take place in smaller cities and towns that aren’t quite prepared for such a huge influx of new residents.

Heavily populated cities have a long list of both positive and negative impacts on the economy, the environment and human well-being. Cities enable people to give up personal vehicles in favor of buses, trains, subways and bicycles. Vertical housing uses fewer resources and takes up less land, making it far more efficient than unnecessarily large single-family homes. Walkability means people living in cities may get more exercise than their suburban counterparts. And when more people live in urban centers, more of the surrounding land can be preserved for agriculture, recreational green spaces and protected tracts of natural landscape.

But within each of those cities is seemingly endless streams of greenhouse gas emissions, congested streets, lack of affordable housing and a whole lot of trash, sewage and other forms of waste. Large urban populations put a worrying strain on local resources like water and electricity, and all that concrete leads to the urban heat island effect, contributing further to climate change. As cities grow, they tend to swallow vast amounts of land, with suburbs pushing ever outward. And though a thriving city is a major economic hub, offering lots of jobs, it’s also difficult and expensive to maintain, with many smaller cities going through extremely painful growth spurts as they try to adjust to rising populations.

Suburban Ghost Towns

The suburbs and exurbs that swelled with domestic promise thanks to the rise of affordable automobiles in post-World War II America are losing their gleam. Sprawling upper-middle-class neighborhoods filled with identical McMansions seemed like a great idea back in the early to mid-00’s, and with many people willing to commute longer to their jobs in order to achieve the suburban American dream, developers built them further and further from city centers. Today, many of these exurbs are nearly deserted, their formerly pristine lawns brown and overgrown. These housing developments, often located in otherwise rural areas, tend to be fairly isolated from commercial areas, requiring residents to drive many miles just to reach a grocery store. And when gas prices inevitably fluctuate, these exurban developments can seem more impractical than ever.

Take a look around nearly any suburb or exurb in the United States and you’ll see one sign of a cultural shift that will only worsen in the coming years: empty big-box stores. These cheap, poorly-constructed, aesthetically unpleasing metal boxes left behind by Walmart, Best Buy, Circuit City and other retail chains are hard to convert for other uses, so that they’re either knocked down and sent to landfills or simply sit vacant for years on end.

“We have long seen signs that the suburbs are unsustainable in their current form – in many senses, they were designed to be,” says Kurt Kohlstedt, founder and editor-in-chief of “Meandering roads are not conducive to transportation. A lack of sidewalks around shopping centers curbs walking. Suburban plots of land are too big to promote community but too small to sustain agricultural conversion.”

Some experts have predicted that if the middle class does actually abandon the suburbs in favor of cities, these neighborhoods will be left to blight. An Australian study concluded that high gas prices could turn car-dependent suburbs into slums, and many suburbs are now more likely to be home to minorities as white youth flock back to cities. It’s all too easy to imagine suburbs falling prey to poverty as their populations are cut off from the opportunities that cities can provide.

The Green Cities of the Future

If expanding cities are inevitable, what can we do to make them more sustainable? Designers, architects, urban planners, economists and other thought leaders around the world are already dreaming up solutions that range from imminently achievable to pie-in-the-sky fantasies, turning cities into real-world laboratories that explore new systems using cutting-edge technologies.

Renowned physicist Geoffrey West acknowledges that urbanization is responsible for a slew of economic, environmental and social problems, but shifts the focus to a big positive: cities as innovation hot-spots. In Thinking Cities, a 20-minute documentary by Ericsson, West discusses the ways in which cities can become “vacuum cleaners or magnets” for human creativity.

In order to prevent the many problems raised by rapid urban growth, we’ll need funding and political support for new technologies that can help us update infrastructure, manage traffic, build more efficiently, manage water and power supplies and reduce waste. Vertical urban farms that harvest their own water, run on renewable energy, recycle their waste and provide a number of essential functions to their residents are just one of the dazzling possibilities on the table. Sustainability-minded architects, engineers and planners are already beginning to imagine how old structures can be adapted for new uses, and new ones can be built to provide the ideal balance of residential, commercial, agricultural and recreational space.

Sustainable Visions For Outmoded Suburbs

And what about the big-box stores, malls and other relics of a suburban lifestyle that may go extinct? Many are already being reused in amazingly creative ways, transforming into cathedrals, farms, artist communities, roller skating rinks and indoor kart-racing tracks. An abandoned Kmart in California was even turned into a Spam museum. Big Box Reuse, a book by Julia Christensen, gathers ideas from designers and architects that include building an entire town in a single parking lot, adapting a warehouse-style store to include windows and a light-filled courtyard and swapping out a big-box store’s roof for translucent skylights so plants can be grown inside.

Dwell’s Reburbia competition solicited solutions that would envision a new future for suburbs, with the winning entry transforming McMansions into biofilter water treatment plants. Another idea involves rezoning suburbs for commercial use, specifically geared toward communities of small businesses. Judge Jill Fehrenbacher of noted that this idea was “clearly the most practical, cost-effective and energy-efficient proposal submitted to Reburbia.” Incidentally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agrees with this overall sentiment, advocating more mixed land use and other changes to suburban zoning codes in order to handle urban growth.

Of course, when it comes to actually putting these ideas into practice, caution will be required to prevent a bunch of half-baked projects that will only add to the problems. And on a global scale, there’s no telling how radical visions of the future will be put into practice.

“Perhaps the most interesting question is how cities, suburbs and countryside will be reshaped in places like China and India where booming populations are most rapidly changing both physical and cultural landscapes,” notes Kohlstedt. “In China, for instance, the dominance of the state paves the way for massive redevelopment projects on a scale unknown to the West. This has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it lends itself to economies of scale and rapid adaptation. On the other hand, it has also already led to entire ghost towns constructed from scratch then left eerily unoccupied.”

Photos: http2007, robertstinnett, vertical farm, dwell

Stephanie Rogers

Stephanie Rogers currently resides in North Carolina where she covers a variety of green topics, from sustainability to food.