The Nature of Cities: What kind of cities do we want?

By David Maddox

What is the city we want to create in the future? What is the city in which we want to live? Certainly that city is sustainable, since we want our cities to balance consumption and inputs to make a footprint that can last into the future. Certainly it is resilient, so our cities are still in existence after the next 100-year storm, now due every few years. And yet: as we build this vision we know that cities must also be livable. Indeed, we must view livability as the third indispensible—and arguably most important—leg supporting the cities of our dreams: resilient + sustainable + livable.

Central to creating such a three-parted view of the cities of our dreams is being explicit about how we value, measure, and describe our cities—because what we choose to measure about our cities is both an expression of what we think is important and inevitably ends up built into policy. If we haven’t weighed and measured it, it isn’t likely to become action at the city level, especially if what we’re advocating is not in the mainstream of policy prescriptions.

Which is why the inclusiveness and breadth with which we use and define words and phrases in green infrastructure matter so much. Resilience is the word of the decade, as sustainability was in previous decades. No doubt, our view of the kind and quality of cities we as societies want to build will continue to evolve and inspire new descriptive goals. Surely we have not lost our desire for sustainable cities, with ecological footprints we can afford, even though our focus has rightly been on resilience, after what seems like a relentless drum beat of natural disasters around the world. And surely our cities must be livable.

Over at TheNatureOfCities.com, our collective blog on cities as ecological spaces, the conceptual boundaries of “ecosystem services” and their relationship to resilient + sustainable + livable cities have been much on our minds. The technical values and prescriptions of ecosystems services obviously are central to resilience and sustainability—storm water capture, storm surge reduction, cooling effects of trees, air quality—but we can’t lose the connection to other less tangible ecosystem services of green infrastructure: for example, how they connect us to place and become sites of meaning. In fact, it is our connection to places, often expressed through our relationship to nature that both reflects and strengthens our social resilience in the face of disasters. Why, for example, do people so often turn to greening in the wake of conflict and disaster? Indeed, the ways in which we connect with nature, such as planting a tree, or leaving a wreath at a fallen tree, or even bicycling, further reinforce these bonds.

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