July 11th, 2006


Making cities work

Urbanism and sustainability are subjects I just can't seem to get enough of. This year, for the first time in the history of humanity, more people will be living in cities than outside them. But the future of the city isn't particularly rosy: in many places, shanty towns of the ultrapoor have sprung up, containing up to 35% of the population of cities like Mexico City. These are places without basic amenities or law and order; meanwhile, the rich retreat to gated communities.

Making Cities Work, a three-part series by Deyan Sudjic for BBC World Service, explores these and other issues. After the grim scenarios sketched out in Mexico City and Moscow, I particularly liked the third programme, on sustainabile design experiments in China. All the shows can be downloaded as mp3s, I link them below. (The image shows Cai Guo-Qiang's "Clear Sky, Black Cloud".)

1. Mexico City
A page about the show.

2. Moscow
A page about the show.

3. Huangbaiyu
A page about the show.

I leave you with two thoughts from the third programme.

"One way of measuring sustainability is something called ecological footprint, which is actually the area of land that's needed to support a person's life, to generate food, to generate power and electricity and energy, and to absorb waste and to provide water. In the UK and Europe we typically have an ecological footprint of 6 hectares per person, which is about 3 planets' worth, if you take the total number of people in the world. And in the US it's about 10 to 12 hectares, which is about 5 or 6 planets' worth. In China, at the moment, if you average right across China -- if you take all the people and all the land area -- the average is only about 1.5 hectares per person." Peter Head, director of ARUP Dong Tang sustainable city project.

"In order to imagine sustaining cities, we have to speak of the future in the present tense. And we have to imagine what the perfectly exquisite would look like in order to achieve the practically impossible. So we look at the future of cities and imagine that we could take all the earth and raise it up onto the roofs and farm the roofs, so that from a bird's perspective nothing has happened. Then we still maintain our farmland. If China's urban development will mean that we lose 25% of Chinese farmland by 2020, then wouldn't it be marvellous if the cities could lift the soil up and we could farm the roofs." William McDonnagh, chairman of group building sustainable houses.