The news cycle regularly features stories about reinventing 21st century cities. Amongst societal issues, perhaps only education is targeted more frequently for reform. And for good reason.
Since 2008, more people have lived in cities than not. By the end of this century, cities will generate nearly 90 percent of population growth and 60 percent of energy consumption. While these bustling hubs of humanity function as the planet’s innovation centers, they’re also responsible for the lion’s share of environmental damage. By some estimates, today’s cities generate around 75 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, alongside countless other pollutants. They consume vast expanses of forests, farmland, and other landscapes while fouling rivers, oceans, and soils. In short, if we don’t get cities right, it’s hard to imagine a healthy future for humanity, let alone the biosphere.
A Tale of Two Cities
By my reading, most of the press surrounding the reinvention of cities can be grouped into two seemingly disparate camps. One camp calls for cities that are “smart,” “digital,” and “high-tech.” Here the emphasis is on information and communication technologies with the potential to boost urban functioning. Fueled by the recent tsunami of civic data—climate information, traffic patterns, pollution levels, power consumption, etc.—key arenas cited for high-tech interventions include flows of people, energy, food, water, and waste. Advocates imagine cities that can talk, providing live status updates for pollution, parking, traffic, water, power, and light. Thanks to such innovations as ultra-low power sensors and web-based wireless networks, smart cities are rapidly becoming reality.
From the other camp we hear about the need for “green,” “biophilic,” even “wild” cities where nature is conserved, restored, and celebrated. Of course, cities have traditionally been places where the wild things aren’t, engineered to wall humans off from the natural world. Yet recent and rapidly accumulating research documents the positive health impacts of regular contact with urban nature. Benefits include reduced stress levels, stronger immune systems, and enhanced learning. Perhaps most important are the myriad physical, mental, and emotional benefits that appear to be essential to a healthy childhood. Proponents of the green city camp also point out that many of the pressing issues of our time—among them climate change, species extinctions, and habitat loss—will not, indeed cannot, be addressed unless people understand and care about nearby nature.
So there you have it. Big Data versus Mother Nature. Two views on the future of cities, apparently residing at opposite ends of the spectrum. One values technological innovation, the other biological wisdom and nature connection. Yet, upon closer inspection, these perspectives are far from mutually exclusive. Indeed they’re complementary.
High-Tech Meets Nature-Rich
It’s entirely possible for cities to be both high-tech and nature-rich. Today, few proponents of green cities claim that we need to go “back to nature.” Rather they argue for going forward into a future rich in both technology and nature. New terms like “technobiophilic cities” and “nature-smart cities” are emerging to describe this blended concept, urban settings where the natural and digital are embraced simultaneously.
Yes, nature-smart cities will have plenty of green roofs, green walls, and interconnected green spaces. Seeding native plants attracts native insects, which in turn entices native birds and other animals, transforming backyards, schoolyards, and courtyards into miniature ecosystems. These nuggets of urban nature, in addition to improving the health of humans, are the last good hope for scores of threatened species.
In addition, cities rich in nature can leverage smart technologies to help urbanites switch to renewable energy sources—wind, sun, water, and geothermal. Green transportation reduces carbon emissions and improves the environment. Green buildings can act like trees, running on sunlight and recycling wastes, so that cities function like forests.
Interestingly, both views of our collective urban future highlight the importance of an informed and engaged citizenry. Digital technologies and big data have potential to put control back in the hands of individuals—for example, through greater participation in local governance (“E-Governance”). Similarly, citizen scientists and citizen naturalists can play important roles restoring plants and animals, as well as monitoring these species and making adjustments to improve the quality and quantity of nearby nature. Here, then, is a potent pathway to help people act on the basis of robust scientific data (and boost science literacy along the way).
In short, there’s much more than hot air in all the news about reimagining the future of cities. At least within urban settings, Mother Nature and Big Data have the potential to make excellent bedfellows. Indeed our survival, and that of much of Earth’s biodiversity, may just depend on consummating this union. If successful, we’ll witness the birth of a new kind of city, one in which both people and nature thrive.