Reinventing urban spaces to live in harmony with the planet 

We need to reinvent urban spaces to live in harmony with the planet 

Travel is about visiting someplace exotic, we’re told. Somewhere that looks, feels and tastes different, in a way that stirs our heart and stimulates our senses. But sit in the central business district of any global city today, and chances are it will look basically the same.

Notwithstanding nods to some cultural artefacts and customs, most major cities have come to resemble what urban design experts call “large corporations centred around commerce,”  where the mayor and council act as CEOs, projects are evaluated against efficiencies and productivity, and the long term goal is growth. 

“Cities today are designed around commercial interests, and they are designed using informatics and data,” says Professor Marcus Foth, founder and director of the Urban Informatics Research Lab at Queensland University of Technology.

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Aerial view over the Holsten Gate, Lubeck, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. (Photo by: Sven-Erik Arndt/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“A lot of design values and principles centre around the collection of data, efficiencies, the incomes of city administrators and what businesses and retailers are available in the area.”

It wasn’t always like this. The concept of a city, Forth says, has evolved far beyond that of ancient times, where the overarching goals of its creators were safety and security.

Whereas today countries and cities are designed with the help of millions of data points and protected by cyber firewalls, municipal parameters were once guarded by castles, intent on keeping unity on the inside and peace on the outside.

“If you look at the Holsten Gate in the old city of Lübeck, Germany, built in 1464, it shows how cities fortified their parameters by physically protecting their inhabitants,” Foth tells Cosmos.

Ancient cities were also designed to reflect the need for people to congregate in public, to have debates and to interact socially.

In 2024, the way we design our cities couldn’t be more different — and it’s all down to computers and the internet.

City 2.0: From polis to a data-run business

Since about the mid-20th century, city planning has been determined by “hard sciences” such as physics and computer science, tending to reduce cities to a series of systems with optimisable, linear processes.

Then, in the 1990s, the game changed again with the advent of the internet. As its use grew so did the data points, spreading from workplaces to the home and, with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, to the individual.

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London. (Photo by Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Today, “we are marinated in data,” says Foth. “Data is collected, interpreted and organised to plan cities, which use informatics, science and technology to function.”

Everything we do — from using our credit cards to Google Maps, to browsing the internet, posting on social media sites or texting on our phones — is constantly being collected and analysed, used to create a world where everything is connected.  

“We are living in an era of ubiquitous computing where we are tracked all the time,” Foth says. “Data drives our transport, safety and security, sustainability applications, how we live on a daily basis — everything.”

Efficiency has also become a focus of urban science, in part driven by consultancy groups and tech giants such as KPMG, Deloitte, Cisco and IBM (in addition to all that data) Foth adds.

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City of arts and sciences, Valencia, Spain. (Photo By View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“They talk about solving problems within cities in business terms, such as optimising real estate, cutting congestion, creating housing affordability, in the meantime turning city administrations into service providers, and citizens into consumers.”

Who rules the world? Car drivers, it seems

Another significant influence on the field of urban science has been a focus on cars.

David Levinson, Professor of Transport at the University of Sydney, says a rise in personal vehicles from the early 1900s ushered in new regulations, such as traffic lights, narrower footpaths and more roads “to rein in pedestrians for the benefit of car drivers”.

The rise in personal car ownership led to the development of the suburbs, and the lifestyle that goes with it, such as people commuting further to work. This, in turn, led to the building of more highways, resulting in increased urban sprawl.

Walkability and cycling took a back seat, with many cities (especially in America) building roads with multiple lanes and higher speed limits, but few sidewalks and crossways. As a result, pedestrian deaths have been rising, with a recent investigation by the New York Times delving deep into factors behind this trend, one of which is the priority given to cars.

“Traffic signals, for example, were designed to help cars avoid hitting other cars and pedestrians from hitting cars — not for ease of walking around the city,” Levinson points out. “Cities today are designed for 95% of people, and not for the bottom 5%, which includes those with disabilities, children and the elderly.”

Walking speeds themselves are set according to studies performed by healthy, young university students, whose speed rate may be faster than the average person’s, Levinson adds.

Smartphones are also altering the way we move. Distracted walking due to smartphone use is on the rise, resulting in growing concern over pedestrian safety and well-being. One of Levinson’s studies looking at this issue found that “groups of people, phone users, and often followers of phone users, walk significantly slower than solo walkers uninfluenced by phone”.

This phenomenon is influencing city design, with one city in China introducing a 30 metre ‘cellphone lane’ for pedestrians. Closer to home, what began as a trial has become a permanent fixture in Melbourne: pedestrian traffic lights installed in the footpaths of Melbourne’s CBD in a bid to alert distracted walkers before it’s too late.

Time for a rethink? How to do cities better

As we near the middle of the 21st century, sentiment is turning towards sustainability and a desire to build greener, healthier cities.

A 2016 Lancet series looking at city design and transport planning found that  changes such as having shops and services close by, mixing jobs and housing across the city, and making neighbourhoods safe, attractive and convenient for public transport, cycling and walking could lower heart disease, diabetes, and pollution, and help people get active.

More: Urban tree planting can save lives

Series author Professor Billie Giles-Corti from the University of Melbourne, along with colleagues, looked at Melbourne, London, Boston, Sao Paulo, Copenhagen and Delhi for their analysis. They conclude that city planning in the 21st century should aim to reduce non-communicable diseases and road trauma, and to promote health and wellbeing more broadly.

“City planning was key to cutting infectious disease outbreaks in the 19th century through improved sanitation, housing and separating residential and industrial areas,” he says.

“With the world’s population estimated to reach 10 billion people by 2050, and three quarters living in cities, city planning today must be part of a comprehensive solution to tackling adverse health outcomes.

Billie Giles-Conti

Duane Elverum, an educator and designer, co-founded CityStudio Vancouver in 2011 to forge a direct link between university students and city planners.

“University students today are moving into debt, they’re concerned about climate change, trying to figure out their careers. They don’t want to just be sitting in boxes all day learning about the world — they are ready to take action and be useful now,” Elverum says.

Working with city staff, faculty members  and the community to design experimental projects that make Vancouver more sustainable, liveable, joyful and inclusive, CityStudio has tackled real-life problems including park revitalisation, designing a building that supports outdoor learning and an app which helps renters secure a house.

CityStudio has proven inspirational beyond Canada’s borders. In 2018, La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus also took up the initiative, offering a five-week intensive subject focusing on how the city should engage with the community to reimagine the Bendigo Creek as “a world class, green, public space spine”.

Overseen by lecturer in planning and human geography Melissa Kennedy, the project was a resounding success (the Creek was revitalised and students  even came up with outdoors dining solutions during 2020) before it became too difficult to continue due to the pandemic.

“Our goal is to pick one project that is aligned with a key council strategy, and try to solve it,” she tells Cosmos. Because the subject brings students from all disciplines together, Kennedy says it provides knowledge and creative tension, which tend to generating great ideas.

“We really hope to bring it back in some form — the council and students are all passionate about it,” she says.

CityStudio is one possible model that brings urban science back to the people, Foth says.

“Today, the public sphere and politically shared encounters with people are basically secondary to selling stuff,” Foth says. Citizens have become consumers, and all the big decisions are made by business groups.

“We need to push urban science into a participatory element, where citizens become participants and co-creators in the process,” he says. “Cities are not businesses, they are not about casinos, hotels, pokie machines and retail.

“We need to reinvent urban science to live in harmony with the planet”. 


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