Urban Architecture Series: Why Urban Planning Matters
By Jennifer Wang
The concrete and marble skyscraper is a staple of the 20th century. With dominating heights and imposing neoclassical facades, it was built to flaunt the values of the century – power, showmanship, and plentitude. The largest cities of the time show us that they were constructed to impress, not to support lasting and growing communities. Today, we see the same romanticized temperate cities in the scalding deserts of Phoenix, the lower-than-sea-level banks of New Orleans, and the monsoon-enduring island coasts of Manila. With low levels of urban planning at their founding, these cities were not built for their surroundings or to house growing population centers of diverse needs. Even as they grew, the original architectural styles became so ingrained that it became difficult for the cities to evolve. As a result, we still see cities like Boston, where winding and hilly roads built for horse-drawn carriages still agonize drivers, and Dubai, where tall skyscrapers dominate over few public spaces and wide roads cut the city into sectors inaccessible by walking. While much of the disorganized building of the past is understandable due to less developed governments and fast growth, the technological advances of this century and the increasingly pressing issues of sustainability and the urban poor require a greater depth of city planning in both developing and established cities.
Urban planning encompasses both the physical layout of an urban area and how resources and information flow within it. The field can be broken down into environmental planning, economic development, transportation planning, and zoning – which limits the types of buildings that can be constructed in a certain area of the city. When urban planning brings these aspects together, a city becomes acclimated to its geographical location, supportive of growth, easy to navigate, and purposeful in its organization. Urban planning ties together almost every aspect of a city from the flow of traffic, power supply, air quality, waste collection, nighttime lighting, and housing and work. In addition, it strives to make the very space that people live in beautiful with elegant architecture and landscaping. Urban planning has the power to make every moment of you day more efficient and enjoyable.
In the modern age, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas and even more commute to work in cities, making urban areas responsible for creating 80% of the global GDP (Rajdev). But far from spearheading the mission to a futuristic science-fiction city, the most innovative theories of urban planning of our time are, and need to be, focused on solving existing problems of unsustainability and poverty. As urban populations rise, so does the amount of resources needed to support them, and when that cannot be provided, the number of people living under poverty in cities increases. A person who lives in a city consumes and wastes more than one who lives in rural areas. Even in Switzerland, arguably a leader in sustainability, it takes an area of land 150% that of the country’s real size to supply the resources for its mostly urban citizens (Coca).
This percentage is only set to rise as more people move into cities. Compounding unsustainability, the rapid growth of many cities has led to unregulated urban sprawl as rural populations move to high density centers in search of jobs and economic opportunities. With many developing cities lacking jobs and safe infrastructure, poor urban dwellers live in conditions with unhealthy sanitation and a lack of access to services like transportation, schools, hospitals, and grocery stores, making it difficult for them to provide for themselves. More than 800 million people live in urban slums today, and in some South Asian cities, as much as 76% of the urban population lives in poverty (Belsky). Even with the help of nonprofits, many urban areas in developing cities are not improving because too often, nonprofits do not work with each other or with governments, and as a result, isolate communities from the resource flows of a city, making it difficult for them to assimilate independently into the city.
However, dense populations of rural newcomers in a city can, under the right conditions, lead to a growth in entrepreneurialism, not only raising urban dwellers out of poverty, but contributing to the economy and making cities stand out as progressive and resilient (Belsky). In cities planned to anticipate urban sprawl, governments can make sure that new houses and residential areas have access to water, power, and waste collection, or as much as is possible in their situations. They can also help to make sure that new structures are prepared for weather patterns like hurricanes and floods. In the end, by planning cities so that there are cheap residential options with access to basic amenities and in proximity of centers that aid the urban poor in finding jobs and supporting their families, cities can not only decrease poverty, but set up a resilient process of welcoming new urban dwellers as the number of people living in cities continues to rise.
It has never been a question that urban planning is vitally important to cities not only at their founding, but continuously throughout their lives. Furthermore, since the Industrial Age, city planners have had to deal with polluting and unsustainable cities as well as the urban poor. What’s different now is that we have the technology for mass data collection, and for the first time, city planners can target the problems they want to fix with a precision that not only reassures them that making one change will not affect entire systems of a city, but also allows them to make more effective changes because they can find the root causes of the problems in a city. By measuring the patterns of a city, how traffic ebbs and flows through a day, how the amount of people moving into cities oscillates over the course of a year, how air pollution changes over the course of a day and across the city, new technology in urban planning is moving us into more purposefully built cities. In the next article, look to explore some of these new technologies.