Five years from now, we could have cities that are noticeably cleaner, safer, and more convenient for the people who live in them. Achieving that doesn’t entail doing anything that isn’t already being done somewhere. What it does entail is making the decision to embrace the inevitably communal aspect of urban living: dense neighborhoods, public transportation, and lower house prices. It also requires the decision to support things like electric vehicles by providing subsidies and charge points. But above all it means asking the city’s residents how they want to live.
In this series of articles, we’ve been building up a catalog of these ideas and picture of the future of cities, examining what is possible in transportation, big data, gender, and all the urban landscape’s other most important components. Here are the nine immediate steps we could take to a markedly higher quality of life for all of those who live in cities.
If your city isn’t doing them, you should ask why.
Taken as a mass, men tend to use transportation to go to work in the morning, then come home at night. Women have a much more varied pattern of movement, taking kids to school, picking them up from activities or doing things like helping their own parents with groceries. Cities like Vienna have responded by breaking up the traditional separation of offices and suburbs, making it easier to take care of both work and your family. Others, like Toronto, have provided request stops on buses so women can get off closer to home late at night.
To stop the urban sprawl that–like in Los Angeles–means everything is further away and you always have to drive, cities as varied as Toronto and Kigali have passed laws keeping the city densely knit. Medellin, in Colombia, is planting a 46-mile-long circular garden around the outskirts to provide a limit to further expansion. And to provide the green space a denser city needs, Milan has erected a bosco verticale, a vertical forest. Perhaps the best demonstration of why a dense city is a healthy city is that Oklahoma City lost a million pounds by encouraging walking.
Going hand-in-hand with urban density is a reduction in the vehicle traffic that’s poisoning our lungs and choking our streets. Cities like Paris are pedestrianizing their centers, getting rid of downtown expressways and replacing them with metros and bike-share schemes. Ultimately, the way to cut pollution is to make the cars electric, and cities from Singapore to London are building out the charge points people need to make the switch. Then, if you make all the cars self-driving as well, they can go faster, too.
The most boringly named revolution in history, big data already lets Amsterdam track how many pedestrians are on the streets at night and dim the lights if there’s no one around. Barcelona already tracks the dampness of soil in its parks and watering teams are automatically dispatched to beds that dry out. Looking further ahead, it will soon allow cities to monitor pollution everywhere as it happens, and deal with it before people get sick. Or make hyper-accurate models of how traffic will be changed by new roads, and put them in optimal places a human might not think of.
France recently became the world’s first country to ban supermarkets from throwing away food. All unsold food nearing its sell-by date must go to charities or food banks. Schools in England have made deals with stores to channel that kind of food to low-income pupils, and give them two free nutritious meals at day at no extra cost to themselves. Meanwhile, to stop the inevitable waste of peels, gristles, and rinds going to landfill, Philadelphia is fitting all new houses with in-sink shredders to make slurry for biogas, while California is making it obligatory to turn all organic waste into compost.
In India, around 35,000 children in 23 cities have been recruited to help redesign their neighborhoods, resulting in better street lighting in places where children have been attacked or railways beside rivers in which several have drowned. It works so well that Bhubaneswar, which won the country’s vast smart cities competition, is asking children to audit development projects before they even begin construction.
All over the developed world, there is a severe shortage of housing supply, and the solution ought to be simple: build more homes. That’s what Singapore did to provide for its citizens, putting up so many apartment buildings that four out of five people live in a state-built houses. Not only that, but the government also let people dip into their pension funds to afford the deposits to buy them. What makes that difficult to replicate is the resistance caused by the many who people actually benefit from the housing crisis. What we have is not really a crisis at all, but intense housing inequality. To solve it, all we need to do is collectively decide to start building.
A study by the University of Cambridge of seven police forces in the U.S. and the U.K. found that introducing body cams, though controversial, reduced complaints against officers by 93%. The lead researcher told the BBC, “I cannot think of any single intervention in the history of policing that [has so] dramatically changed the way officers behave.” By the middle of this year, 1,100 U.S. police departments are due to upload searchable videos to the website CrimeReports.
To cope with a huge influx of refugees (Germany has taken in 1.1 million in the past two years, nearly 10 times as many as the U.S.) the city of Hamburg has turned to its residents. People from each neighborhood have come forward to suggest where new shelters could be built, and a Brookings study found that one permanent shelter had 140 volunteers for 190 refugees. Likewise, in Canada, a third of arriving Syrians have been financially supported by groups of Canadians. In fact, so many Canadians came forward to provide sponsorship that the government ran out of refugees to allocate.
Alexander Starritt is the editor of Apolitical.