Where Cities Are Taking Us: 10 Urban Eco Trends


If you want a glimpse of our world in centuries to come, stroll round a city. Dystopian-mongering pessimists will now be holding their heads in their hands and groaning. Can we blame them? Urban areas are too commonly associated with poverty, pollution, neglect and a brutalizing of the environment for the sake of a fast buck. Pretty? Only from high up.

But that’s the old model of city life. Crocodile Dundee wasn’t too far off the mark when he said cities must be friendly because so many people want to live together. They’re the biggest physical expressions of our social nature on this planet. They’re filled with people, every one of them an individual – and so in these eco-conscious times where everyone can step up and contribute, cities are where things happen.

Here are 10 urban trends that will shape of the cities of tomorrow.


Keep The City Buzzing

Bees are on the wane, and we have no idea why. Entire populations are dying or disappearing as part of the baffling phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Bad news in itself, but the sting in the tale is that without bees, many of our staple crops are doomed. While scientists search for the answers, the urban backyard remedy is obvious – and here’s how it works. Bee hives only need a little land to thrive – and you’d be following in the footsteps of committed enthusiasts like Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L Jackson. Further incentive needed? One word: honey.


Urban Growth

Escalating food prices, and all that land out back? Put the two together and turning your place into an edible garden is a no-brainer. But even if you’re squeezed into a concreted corner or you’re halfway up a towerblock, there’s still room for some horticultural creativity. Agricultural skyscrapers are on the rise (as it were) but while city-planners develop a coherently green strategy, it’s all about self-expression. Snake some vines over your balcony or up the wall. Let your potted plants grab onto windows and railings. Make your city come alive!

Green Roof

Up Where The Air Is Green

But whatever is done in the vertical is being done tenfold in the horizontal. Green roofs have captured the urban imagination like no other eco-craze, and it’s not hard to see why: they’re beautiful, they have a deeply practical element, and…did we say how beautiful? Of course there are new architectural challenges that come with having tons of topsoil and greenery piled on your ceiling – and there’s the usual amount of half-hearted bandwaggoning. (Yes, Astroturf is cheating). But wouldn’t it be nice to have a little less of the “concrete”, a little more of the “jungle”? I bet the local wildlife would think so.


Seed-Bomb It Back To The Stone Age

If you’re heartsick of seeing drab, neglected patches of municipal land blighting your neighborhood…you could be a guerrilla gardener waiting to join the green revolution. “Fighting the filth with forks and flowers”, these law-skirting folk are on a mission to bring budding life to every corner of our cities by any means possible. They sneak out at night with seeds and trowel, beautifying furiously before daylight exposes their efforts to the cops, or they plant greenery while hidden in full view. Sound like your kind of thing? Sign up here (you rebel, you).

Electric Car

Cleaning The Streets: Electric Cars and Friendly Rides

It’s been on the horizon for years (far too many of them) but now the electric car is starting to make headway in the place it’s best suited for – the urban grid. Where else is it practical to build recharging stations at the kind of density that suits the electric car’s shorter range? Ah, but that’s changing too – some of the models on our 2009 roundup hold enough juice to compare favorably to their gas-powered counterparts. These admirable advances aside, do you really need your own car? If not, and if braving the public transport isn’t an option, grab a lift with someone else – because urban carpooling is here to stay.


Commute Yourself Slim

In the convenience-drugged city of tomorrow, the only sweat you’ll break is when you’re deciding which button to push. Utopian dream? We say: urban nightmare. We spend our day in the thrall of convenience technology…and then heads straight to the nearest super-expensive gym to compensate. With modern life in full swing, who needs The Onion? Luckily there are architects who recognise the danger and, like Nintendo, are sneaking gyms into our lives without us realising. Their thinking is: why consume electricity when calories can be burnt instead? So the urban fabric gets a healthy makeover, like the much maligned stairwell. Cars are zoned out of existence and replaced with their human-powered counterparts (saving you cash in all sorts of ways). Parks and paths are expanded, and everywhere can be reached by a sidewalk. Healthy commuter, coming through. For specifics, check out the New York City Department of Design + Construction’s Active Design Guidelines.

Summer Harvest

One for Me, One for You…

My mum has a logistics problem. Thanks to some absurdly prolific fruit trees, her freezer is permanently half-full with surplus she has to freeze or it goes to waste. What she needs is a local fruit exchange – a social network (online and offline) that collects and distributes surplus produce for the good of the neighborhood. Take San Francisco’s version, Neighborhood Fruit, working like a foodie’s version of Freecycle – the goods are there for free, you collect them yourself, and first come is first served. If you like free food (ie. if you have a pulse) or want to reclaim your freezer, find your local fruit exchange…and if there’s none at hand, why not start one (pdf)?


Serving the Needy (With Servings)

Gone are the days that it’s acceptable for shops to chuck unused food away at closing time (and having worked as a barista for a certain worldwide coffee chain, I’ve seen my fair share of that). While up to a third of household groceries still go into the trash, restaurants are acting rather more respectably by offering up their output to local charities and nonprofit organisations, or directly into the hands of the homeless on the street. Check out the National Restaurant Association’s food donation work, and their guide to doing it (PDF).


It’s Cheaper Online (or, How We Killed The High Street)

Here’s a phrase to fill a shopkeeper with dread: “No, I won’t buy it here, I’ll get it on eBay / Amazon /Craigslist”. Online retailing is gargantuan business, simply because it’s usually the way to pick up the best goods from anywhere in the globe at the best price. Is it green? With minimal packaging and low overheads, you’t think so – except it’s also the quickest method of wiping out profits for urban retailers and for killing small traders. (Even the big ones aren’t safe – take the fate of Borders UK.) However, counter that with the fact that they’re billion-dollar recycling machines that often do a lot of good.

No matter your view, the bottom line is that online retailing is on the rise – and shopping is changing forever.


Neighbors are a Big Deal

But why spend money at all? Before money there was bartering, and thanks to the people-connecting power of the Internet, it’s firmly back in fashion (although we wouldn’t say “money is dead” – merely looking a bit peaky). If it fits through the post, it’s being swapped: books, DVDs, clothes, gadgets, plant seeds and tons more. Yet cities are where this is taking place in person, exchanging goods and services and reinforcing social bonds. Bartering binds people together.

And for the more intrepid barterer – why not trade homes with a complete stranger?

Images: telmo32, NNECAPA, axiepics, bbjee, ubrayj02, frankh, emrank, Alex E. Proimos, eHow and paul(dex) busy @ work

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.