The debate about cities being an environmental threat is not new. During the Industrial Revolution, cities were the epitome of environmental devastation, dirty places where people crowded in unhygienic conditions and worked in filthy factories. Cities brought with them jobs and prosperity, but environmentally perfect they were not.
The connection between cities and environmental degradation, however, is false. Today, the urban dweller releases the least amount of CO2. New Yorkers for example release a third as much CO2 as the average American. The same pattern is found in other major cities like Barcelona, Toronto, Tokyo and London.
This is also true for Sweden. A study by the World Wildlife Fund revealed that in municipalities classified as ‘urban’ or ‘large cities, inhabitants released 15 percent less CO2 than their rural counterparts. This is partly due to smaller living areas, energy efficient apartment buildings, and access to public transportation.
Despite the city dweller’s relatively eco-friendly lifestyle, it is still in the city that has the greatest scope for further improvement. The reason is that even small reductions in emissions per person can lead to aggregate decreases due to a large population.
Don’t build a house, grow it!
Architect Mitchell Joachim has wondered how cities could become even more environmentally friendly. Joachim, who is on Wired magazine’s ‘Smart List,’ has developed a concept for the sustainable city where both buildings and transportation systems become an integral part of the environment. Instead of building a house with classic materials, Joachim suggests cultivating one’s house. By manipulating and shaping trees, they can grow into rugged structures that can form the basis for a home construction. Branches instead of I-beams, put simply.
And if one needs more than what trees can offer, Joachim has a solution for that as well: garbage. Compressing trash into hard pillars can become building materials, while solving a waste problem at the same time. And the materials are there in abundance. The Empire State building could be built with all the waste New Yorkers throw out in two weeks.
Soft cars or blimps
The car still has a place in Joachim’s urban vision, but it has an entirely new form and completely new features. Instead of being private possessions of metal that spend 90 percent of their time parked, Joachim believes that future cars will be a part of public transportation. Just like city bikes, where you pick a bike from a depot and leave it at its destination, cars would be used more efficiently if they could be shared. This would increase the time they are actually used, and decrease the time they are parked freeing up space at the same time. Joachim also wants to design cars in a soft, stretchable material to facilitate congestion and reduce the risk of hard collisions. This would also facilitate tight parking spaces.
But even though the car has a great potential to become more effective, other means of transportation will be needed. One such example is the slow-flying blimp, with lift chairs that passengers can hop on and off while on the move. These could move over water and other geographical obstacles or along fixed paths and would thus constitute a kind of airborne ring road.
The centrally-planned city?
Of course, the ideas of one single visionary should be taken with a grain of salt. To build fully integrated, planned cities is hardly possible, and perhaps not even desirable. Spontaneity and ideas that clash may have a value in themselves. But Joachim nevertheless shows how cities have the potential to consolidate and strengthen their role as a climate-friendly piece of the CO2 puzzle.
The article was published in June 2011