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Toward a more livable urban world

Spring/Summer 2014 | By Paul Robbins

For many people, nothing may seem less natural than a city. Cities are full of people; they’re noisy, dirty, and everywhere marked by artificial activities and materials. People who think about nature often deliberately choose not to think about cities. And yet… 

And yet cities are constructed from nature: sand, water, metal and stone. They typically teem with life, from insects and raccoons to coyotes and eagles. Most importantly, the creation of cities always depends on the transformation of surrounding rural areas, from which flow raw materials, food and energy. As writer Matthew Gandy famously noted in his book Concrete and Clay, “the design, use, and meaning of urban space involve the transformation of nature into a new synthesis.” In this sense, what could be more natural than a city? 

Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins. Photo courtesy
Chengdu Institute of Biology.

More than this, cities can even be the key to sustainability. Urban living is far more energy-efficient than life in sprawling suburbs or rural dwellings. The concentration of people allows remarkable innovations in infrastructure and transport. Smart urban design lowers the human footprint on the Earth, to say nothing of the cultural inflorescence and creativity made possible by cosmopolitan life. 

Finally, thinking about cities as environments is made all the more imperative by a simple reality. Before the end of the century, more than 75 percent of us worldwide will live in cities, compared to just over half of us now. This revolution means cities simply can’t be ignored. Visiting Shanghai on behalf of the Institute in March of this year, however, I couldn’t help but be concerned about what cities do to the environment and to the people who live there. Faced with snarled traffic, filthy air, and miles and miles of construction made me wonder if people couldn’t do a better job of crafting their urban environments. 

Fortunately, folks associated with the Nelson Institute have been thinking about the “nature of cities” for a long time, and we’re pleased to profile just a few of them in this issue of In Common. Our research centers, and countless individual faculty members, are investigating urban energy systems, air quality, food security, weather-readiness, health, social stability and other issues related to urban sustainability. 

The Nelson Institute, as an interdisciplinary engine of collaboration, is bringing together strengths across campus to wrestle with the challenges of understanding urban ecosystems, designing and building for extreme heat and rain events, and learning to live with the diverse species that share our streets, parks, golf courses and sewers. 

But we still have a long way to go. That’s why we’re prepared to double-down on urban ecology here at Nelson by organizing teams to apply for major funding in the area of urban ecosystem science, supporting service learning capstones that provide students with encounters with urban wildlife, and forging new partnerships with private industries and utilities at work in cities. The future of the Earth rests in what we do in cities, whether we like it or not. The Nelson Institute is ready to help answer the call of our inevitable, new urban natures. 

Paul Robbins sig
Paul Robbins
Director, Nelson Institute 

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