What does "sustainability" really mean? A forward-looking French architect offers his reflections as part of Worldcrunch Impact: Smarter Cities.
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.
*Alain Renk is a French architect and urban planner. In 2010, he co-founded UFO, a technology startup aimed at developing and experiment with collective intelligence tools dedicated to improving city life.