For as long as there have been people, there have been communities. These communities have been marked by a system, however intricate or rudimentary, of brotherhood, symbiosis, and cooperation, and they have all operated under some form of governance, however simple or complex.
Those of us living in the United States are likely familiar with the story of our nation’s founding. The story recounts how our forefathers sailed across the Atlantic seeking religious autonomy, wealth and abundance, and freedom from oppressive class systems. They had a vision for the future that their countrymen could not see, and they were full of zeal to see their vision made manifest.
Centuries and countless struggles later, here we are, for better or for worse. Within those hundreds of years, and either because of or in spite of the struggles we faced, we have built an entire nation from just a few rebel colonies along the Atlantic coastline.
So, how did we get from Jamestown and Plymouth to New York and Los Angeles?
The answer isn’t simple, though it is arguably small.
If you take a step back from modernity and dig into the past, every town or city was founded on similar grounds as the ones on which the nation was built. Many started as frontier settlements where explorers, entrepreneurs, outlaws, and the otherwise disenfranchised sought betterment for themselves and their families. They sought prosperity, yes, but also comfort, happiness, and a sense of belonging.
They were searching for a place to call “home,” a place that would promise access to resources, economic abundance, and kinship. Take Houston, for example. Today, Houston is one of the largest cities in the United States, even before taking into account the suburbs that comprise the Greater Houston area. It is the home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the world-renowned Houston Medical Center, and one of the largest ports along the Gulf Coast. Speaking of its founding, the Port of Houston played a critical role in elevating a sweltering town in the middle of a swamp to the metropolis it is today. As we moved into the 20th and 21st centuries, technological advancements made life in the swamp more tolerable, dare I say comfortable. Its people became battle-hardened against the heat and humidity because the benefits of the land outweighed the challenges it presented. Energy production and distribution became a way of life for many Houstonians, and in many ways today, Houston plays an important role in the nation’s energy policy and even foreign relations.
Houston’s proliferation was largely the result of a natural disaster that impacted a neighboring coastal city. Once Galveston was no longer viable as a port following the Great Hurricane of 1900, Houston stepped in to offer support while effectively seizing future prospects of growth and influence for itself. Was it heroism or was it opportunism? The full story is likely a combination of both.
A struggle that we often see in modern cities is a lack of initial city planning, but this is so often the case because cities tend to be born from smaller collections of neighboring towns. Take Boston, for example. The roads in Boston Proper have been likened to, well, a nightmare for locals and tourists alike. Some roads are impossibly narrow, intersections are not always pleasantly perpendicular, and the congestion is unreal. In fact, some attribute the state of Boston’s infrastructure to the colonial days. Rumor has it, though this has not been confirmed, that cows once roamed freely around the burgeoning city, creating tracks along their normal routes. Those “cow paths” were later paved as roads, which explains the seemingly arbitrary road map. Supposedly.
The reality of Boston’s hodge-podge assembly is likely a combination of several factors. As individual towns began to expand in the 18th century, they started to meld into one another. Eventually, the city of Boston started annexing neighboring towns, each of which already had their own road system in place, contributing to overall sprawl as well as a new city identity. Also, due to tricky terrain and topography, the dream of a perfect grid system is just that — a dream. Many coastal towns have to contend with beaches, marshes, bodies of water, and lowlands. Bays, rivers, and channels don’t care that you’d like for a road to run through them. You simply need to go around.
Planning for expansion is also something that astute city planners will keep in mind. As populations grow, the existing infrastructure needs to be able to accommodate it. That requires quite a bit of forward thinking. Otherwise, if you build for the population you currently have, by the time construction is complete, you’ll have to start all over again to account for the population growth during the time since you started. Somehow, cities need to find a way to be dynamic and flexible, taking people, evolving lifestyle trends, existing structures, and the land into consideration. That said, many city residents are used to the constant presence of construction workers, traffic cones, detours, and seemingly never ending construction projects. These projects not only help to improve the city overall, but they provide important jobs for citizens, however disruptive they may be.
So, what if we could shift those construction projects a bit rather than eliminating them in the name of obsolescence? Many cities around the world are looking for ways to do exactly that as the new global priority is sustainability and connectedness. This means that the current structure of condensed downtowns and sparse suburbs is no longer ideal. Regarding suburbs, specifically, the sprawl is an especially tricky issue to tackle. As property lots get bigger and bigger, the idea of walking to a friend’s house, even a friend within your own neighborhood, becomes an increasingly unlikely prospect. Throw some strip malls and giant parking lots into the mix and you’re left with a town full of people who don’t know their neighbors, live largely independent lives, and consume far more than is necessary as a result of that independence. Downtown neighborhoods are a little better, depending on the specific city, but a dense population is not necessarily indicative of communal living.
This push for rethinking our urban, suburban, and rural structures comes in no small part from the fact that, according to the UN, cities take up only 2% of the earth’s surface, but contribute 60% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, cities consume about 78% of the world’s energy, implying that the way we live today has more than a little wiggle-room when it comes to living more efficiently.
As globalization efforts push forth, cities are popping up and expanding in areas where development has been slow, specifically across the African and Asian continents. These new cities offer a unique opportunity to embrace technological advancements and sustainable measures from the jump, which is typically much easier than trying to convert an existing city from one of freeways and traffic jams to one of, say, public transit and walkability. That’s not to say the latter cannot be done, though.
As is often the case, one of the bigger struggles with change is not the lack of technology or resources that are available — it’s the cultural impacts of said change and the population’s willingness to try something new. Change is uncomfortable, to say the absolute least, but that discomfort is sometimes so great that it can be enough to thwart advancements that would otherwise be recommended and viable.
How can we get around that discomfort?
Some experts believe that the way forward is for innovation to be driven from within rather than without. This means that rather than imploring an outsider to swoop in to solve the problems that they think plagues the community, we should instead work from the inside out, empowering residents to better their communities in ways that reflect the needs and wants of the people and the land. After all, who knows a place better than those who call it home? By doing this, advancements and improvements to city structures reflect the culture, lifestyles, and priorities of the people who will have to live with them, allowing for easier (though still not easy!) adoption and adaptation.
Beyond that, the global pandemic that shook us all in 2020 will likely have long-lasting impacts on our future and the way we choose to live our lives. Many businesses and individuals are already embracing more work-from-home options rather than subjecting themselves to the commuter culture of yesterday. The lack of connection that we all experienced may also contribute to people being more proactive about their work-life balance, becoming more reluctant to put in 60+ work hours a week in an excessively air-conditioned downtown office building. Without the need for workers to congregate in downtown districts, the population will be allowed to distribute itself based on personal preferences and lifestyle instead of proximity to their jobs or freeway accessibility.
This is just the beginning of the conversation in many ways, but progress, while it can be slow-coming, is driven by necessity, the desire for equity, deliberate reform, and above all else, conviction in the belief that this world can and will be better, for us, for our children, and for the planet.
By Yasmin Khan
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