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Smarter Cities

Urban Diversity: Cities Of Differences Create Different Cities

What does "sustainability" really mean? A forward-looking French architect offers his reflections as part of Worldcrunch Impact: Smarter Cities.

The Hammarby Sjostad environmental project in Stockholm
The Hammarby Sjostad environmental project in Stockholm
Alain Renk*

PARIS — Sustainability has become the new buzzword around the world as cities look for ways to attract residents, tourists and businesses. But too frequently “sustainability” is little more than PR campaigns promoting a few green buildings scattered around the city — buildings that will never touch the lives of the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants, nor change the city’s quality of life.

This approach perverts the meaning of “sustainable,” because the only way to move towards real, long-term sustainability is to engage all of civil society in the transformation of the entire urban fabric.

The first step towards a truly sustainable transformation is to make sure that a maximum number of actors have an agreed upon, concrete goal. That goal should be shareable, measurable and desirable and should include a move towards increased sustainability.

Working towards improving the quality of city life has the possibility to bring together young and old, scientists and artists, poor and rich. These different stakeholders should work towards creating a city that makes space for modern transportation, business and culture, while orienting itself towards the future, not the past.

In addition, transforming the fabric of our urban lives will require people, groups and cultures from different backgrounds to work together. They might be from different professional spheres and used to working in different physical spaces and on different time frames, but they must work in concert towards a more sustainable future.

That means desegregating development specialities like housing, transportation and commercial development and focusing instead on the interconnectedness between each of those domains. In that sense, the biggest challenge in sustainable urban development is reconfiguring the mental architecture of officials, planners and all of the other professionals involved in a city’s transformation.

The key to improving the quality of city life is creating “urban diversity.” This means promoting diversity in the types and sizes of businesses and business spaces, in cultural activities and institutions as well as economic diversity. Like genetic diversity in the natural world, diversity in an urban context builds resilience throughout the city’s systems.

Here are some other mental shifts that need to take place as we prepare to create the cities of tomorrow:

NO SIZE FITS ALL - Today, big = leader. Our increasing digital connectivity will challenge this notion in the future, allowing for a more nuanced discussion about how size influences quality of life in the city.

DIALOGUE - Traditional urban planners do the thinking for civil society. In the future, they will have to think with civil society.

ALL CORNERS - Today a city’s vitality is measured by its urban center, but the city of tomorrow will be dynamic throughout its entire territory, as business and cultural activities spread throughout the city.

CONNECTIONS - Today’s urban production systems tend to be uniform, while in the cities of the future they will be more personalized and connected.

CREATIONS - Urbanism today is about organization and tidiness, but in the future it will be about promoting creativity.

The challenge for modern urban planning is to establish the best possible conditions for humankind’s time on earth. Professionals should focus just as much on facilitating the almost infinite number of small projects that arise from civil society as they do on large, flashy projects. If they are able to do so, the number of sustainable transformations will take off. Modest projects deployed en masse will create a network of urban territories that are more sustainable and more livable. This is a human recipe for creating the cities of the future.

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Coronavirus

In Shanghai, A Brewing Expat Exodus As COVID Crackdown Shows "Real" China

Not only strict rules of freedom of movement as part of Zero-COVID policy but also an increase in censorship has raised many questions for the expat population in the megacity of 26 million that had long enjoyed a kind of special status in China as a place of freedom and openness. A recent survey of foreigners in the Chinese megacity found that 48% of respondents said they would leave Shanghai within the next year.

People walk in Tianzifang, located in Huangpu District, a well-known tourist attraction in Shanghai.

Lili Bai

SHANGHAI — On the seventh day of the lockdown, Félix, a French expat who has worked in Shanghai for four years, texted his boss: I want to "run,' mais je sais pas quand (but I don’t know when). A minute later, he received a reply: moi aussi (me too).

Félix had recently learned the new Mandarin word 润 (run) from social network postings of his local friends. Because its pinyin “rùn” is the same as the English word “run,” Chinese youth had begun to use it to express their wish to escape reality, either to “be freed from mundane life”, or to “run toward your future.”

For foreigners like Félix, by associating the expression “run” with the feeling of the current lockdown in Shanghai, “everything makes sense.” Félix recalled how at the end of March, the government denied rumors of an impending lockdown: “My Chinese colleagues all said, Shanghai is China’s top city, there would be no lockdown no matter what.”

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