5 Ways We Can Improve Cities During the Pandemic

Intersection

IKEA’s research and design lab in Copenhagen released a book this month on ways we can improve our cities. They start by recognizing we’re presently facing two global crisis: a pandemic and catastrophic climate change. Their proposals to address these two issues within cities is titled The Ideal City and they outright admit that top-down urban planning is inherently problematic. The goal of the book is to demonstrate that change is possible, it’s happening, and we can make the world better by improving our lived environments.

Making Cities Safer

This chapter proposes that in addition to lowering crime, cities need to protect their citizens against extreme weather events and provide a healthy environment that fosters physical and mental well-being. It highlights a small project that makes a big impact: the Tokyo Toilet, a series of 17 public restrooms designed by renowned architects in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. By incorporating colored glass that’s transparent when the lavatory is empty and opaque when in use, Pritzker Prize–winning architect Shigeru Ban’s design addresses two basic concerns people have with public toilets: cleanliness and how to know if someone’s inside.

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Cable Cars Growing in Popularity

Good Street from Streetmix

The future of urban transit can be found in the mountains. As we noted back in 2012, gondolas (AKA cable cars) are a very real and practical option to solve urban mobility. The benefits of using cable cars are many and when they are integrated into local fare systems they can function as a vital piece of transit infrastructure. We’ve seen the adoption of gondolas increase globally and hopefully even more cities will utilize this modern form of transit.

Vancouver is currently optioning a cableway, as are multiple cities throughout France. The future is now, and the future is suspended in the sky.

Cableways excel in transporting passengers over geographic obstacles and height differences, crossing rivers, valleys, and harbours, and scaling hills, many times cheaper than building a new road, rail line, tunnel, or bridge. And with a much smaller footprint than tram lines. A kilometre of cableway costs about half as much to install as the same length of tram line, and takes much less time to construct. Once approved, cableway systems can be designed and built in about a year.

With electric motors, cableways use significantly less energy and emit much less CO2 than diesel or hybrid buses, and are much quieter. Their simplicity provides near 100% reliability. In case of electrical outages, lines have an emergency backup generator. Operating costs are also quite low. Even though the Emirates Air Line carries only 10 percent of its capacity, it still generates revenue for TfL, such is the low cost of maintenance and motive electricity required.

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Fleeing the City During This Pandemic? Do so Sustainably

the suburbs

Inequality has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and we ought to be conscious about this. Wealthy individuals can work from home and afford to move, while others need to be physically at work and can’t move. As a result the prices of houses outside of cities have risen has more people look for more space to accommodate working from home.

We also know that the suburbs are drivers of regressive political attitudes and horrible environmental damage. We ought to be conscious about this too. Since people want to keep working from home and move further from sustainable infrastructure, what should we do? Over at Fast Company they explore this 2020 conundrum.

As we face a climate turning point for which our post-COVID-19 behaviors are especially crucial, it’s important that higher-income individuals who move outward live in an eco-friendly way, especially when many essential and lower-wage workers must stay in cities and, often, climate hotspots. “COVID-19 has illustrated a sad truism: We may all be in the same boat, but we all do not have the same paddles,” Daniel Kammen, the other Berkeley study author, wrote in an email to Fast Company. Affluent individuals in New York and San Francisco have the financial means to insulate themselves from climate risks, such as wildfires and unsafe air, by working from home and relocating, he explained. “Multiple properties, often larger suburban and rural homes, and longer delivery chains all mean that individual emissions of the affluent rise when they take the extra precautions they can afford.”

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Truly Smart Cities are Actually “Dumb”

Montreal

Earlier this year Sidewalk Labs (Google) opted out of building a “smart” neighbourhood in Toronto due to local pressure (protests work!). What the “smart” neighbourhood wanted to do was monitor and control the activities of occupants and visitors, which would have likely violated many laws. The business plan was even more outrageous since it set out to mire the city in debt by loaning money to the government to pay for the construction. These so-called smart initiatives are really the privatization, through surveillance capitalism ,of the urban space by massive corporations.

If we want resilient, robust, and nice places to live then we ought to get inspiration from the past. Ice in the desert without AC? That’s possible with technology dating back hundreds of years. We need to take a look at work at the past and implement those solutions in modern ways.

As for dumb transport, there can be no doubt that walking or cycling are superior to car travel over short urban distances: zero pollution, zero carbon emissions, free exercise.

And there’s a dumb solution to the spread of air conditioning, one of the greatest urban energy guzzlers: more plants. A study in Madison, Wisconsin found that urban temperatures can be 5% cooler with 40% tree cover. Green roofs with high vegetation density can cool buildings by up to 60%. Or you could just think like a bug: architects are mimicking the natural cooling airflows of termite burrows. Mick Pearce’s 350,000 sq ft Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, completed in the 1990s, is still held up as a paragon of dumb air conditioning: all it needs are fans, and uses a tenth of the energy of the buildings next door.

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Wild Animals Keep our Cities Clean

CBC’s ecological science show is taking an unorthodox look at the vermin and critters in our cities by showing how they help us. On Jan. 31 The Nature of Things will air the episode, trailer above, all about how animals have adapted to urban environments and how those animals end up helping humans. It’s a neat approach to animals that otherwise get a bad reputation.

In Toronto, we join urban wildlife behaviour expert Suzanne MacDonald and Toronto Wildlife Centre Team Leader Andrew Wight on their hunt for the elusive opossum. Opossums are native to the southern United States, but in recent years, climate change has extended their habitat north to Canada. They look fierce and foreboding but they are one of the shyest scavengers of all. We discover how they help make our cities healthier by eating our refuse – they can even digest bone. They also eat and eliminate disease-laden ticks.

In Manhattan, we meet a team of young entomologists and learn the importance of ants in keeping city streets clean. There are over 2,000 ants for every human. The pavement ant, a rarely studied species, picks up and eliminates the food that people drop. These foraging ants can lift over ten times their weight and eat as much or more than rats in the city. Unlike rats, they do not transmit human diseases.

Check it out.

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