If you have middle-schoolers, they can tell you all about how natural habitats fit into natural ecosystems; you can analogize to them that urban design fits similarly into urban planning.
Like rain forests and coral reefs, cities are themselves diverse ecosystems, abuzz with movement and sounds and life of all shapes and sizes. Chaotic though they seem (especially when we’re sitting in the thick of rush hour traffic), most cities are actually very well organized. Things usually go according to plan. And design.
As we race toward a crowded and constantly changing future, the importance of urban planning and design in every city is perhaps more clear than ever before. Not only are we developing our cities to be more organized, we’re now designing them to be more optimized.
Because every city is (often times, very) different, there’s no universally efficacious approach to urban optimization. But, typically, the end-goals are the same: connection, safety, livability. More now than ever, creative collaboration between cities and private agencies is driving this urban optimization forward—like a team of ecologists working to rebound a natural ecosystem.
WHAT DEFINES POOR URBAN DESIGN, AND HOW DOES IT LEAD TO UNHEALTHY URBAN ECOSYSTEMS?
Urban design is a response to culture. In the mid-1900s, we started planning our cities around cars, redesigning them to be more sparse. If that meant paving over existing assets, like extensive train and trolley networks as Los Angeles did, so be it.
America’s cultural infatuation with cars created a cultural dependence on them. Now, careless residents in many cities feel isolated from friends and family, from activities, errands, and healthy lifestyles. What we classify as the commuter’s journey seems to those without personal vehicles more like an odyssey. And even for many with cars, their urban ecosystem can feel suffocating due to high costs of vehicle ownership, extensive commute times, and difficulty finding available parking.
It’s safe to consider such cities as unhealthy urban ecosystems.
WHAT DOES A HEALTHY URBAN ECOSYSTEM LOOK LIKE?
Salesmen have the 80/20 rule; urban designers have the 8-80 rule.
An 8-80 City is a concept that many urban planners and designers aspire towards, whereby a city should allow everyone from eight to eighty years old to safely and easily journey from their home to their destination, whether that’s to the school, the drug store, the park.
From an ecosystem standpoint, eight year olds and eighty year olds are “indicator species.” The health of an urban ecosystem can be measured by how safe, healthy, and independent these demographics are, as expounded upon in this video.
Healthy cities prioritize human interaction and sociability—an excellent example being Toronto’s Kensington Market, an area so pedestrian friendly they literally have a monthly community event called Pedestrian Sundays. (Incidentally, it’s not to be missed if you’re there during summer.)
In the same way you can identify a healthy reef by the abundance of marine life and colorful coral, thriving urban ecosystems, such as Tokyo, incorporate mixed-use mobility and autonomous public transportation to reduce the reliance on cars, opening up our roads and sidewalks, making them safer for pedestrians and making physical room for new amenities.
Healthy cities have vibrant streets with bike lanes, well-lit sidewalks, and dynamic curbs, as well as inviting public spaces that encourage community and leisure.
I love how the above video wraps up 8-80 Cities: they are “cities we can grow up in and grow old in.”
PLANNING AND DESIGNING HEALTHY URBAN ECOSYSTEMS
Take a look at the world’s “healthiest” cities. They incorporate mixed-use and last-mile mobility strategies to ease congestion, transform their curb space, and make city living easy and pleasant.
But don’t be fooled into thinking all these cities are major metropolitan stars like Tokyo or Toronto.
Right here in Southern California, Carlsbad is exemplifying the talent of its government and private urban designers.
Carlsbad has long been one of the most desirable cities in San Diego County, and it’s not by accident. People are drawn to its open spaces and small-town town feel, the preservation of which is underscored in the city’s development plan.
While much of the plan strives for environmental conservation and population management, urban designers are focusing intently on optimizing parking and mobility to be more mixed and less reliant on personal vehicles. A smart move in a city where 40% of all trips are under two miles!
A Sustainable Mobility Plan expands “active transportation options to promote safe, healthy, and convenient travel options for people of all ages and abilities.” Multifaceted in approach, the plan’s scope ranges from improving bicycle and pedestrian routes to streamlining parking demand to curb transformation. All geared around the central tenet that cities should be livable, not just lived in.
Across the pond, “Milton Keynes, a small city outside of London, [introduced in 2016] small electric cars in the city,” explains Karen Kelly and Samuel Schwartz in No One At The Wheel. “The podlike vehicles travel… on designed pathways (not roadways); they are able to travel alongside pedestrians.”
Whether they consider themselves 8-80 Cities or not, they certainly embody healthy urban ecosystems.
DESIGNING WITH THE FUTURE IN MIND
So, thriving city ecosystems aren’t necessarily big ones, but they are collaborative and future-thinking in their urban design and planning strategies. The last half-decade has underscored to governments the importance of flexibility when it comes to mobility and development strategies.
I’m not shy in expressing my pride in many city officials for their inquisitive approach to urban planning and design, questioning the long-term effects of every idea and always asking, “How does this put people first?”
In the same way the car designers strive to enhance the safety of drivers and passengers, urban designers are actively pursuing safer, more enjoyable, independent and all-around healthier urban environments for pedestrians—even as it increasingly means fewer cars and new energy sources.
Perhaps what’s most exciting is that these pursuits are leading to happier, more independent, and all-around healthier people. Perhaps with time, healthier natural ecosystems, too.
– Collaboration between government and private agencies is optimizing urban environments to be healthier, more efficient, and more adaptable to disruption than ever before.
– Concepts like 8-80 Cities are being widely adopted by government and private-agency designers alike, leading to a collective goal for healthier urban ecosystems.
– Healthy cities don’t have to be large ones.
– Urban design that strives for healthier urban ecosystems usually leads to healthier natural ecosystems and happier people.