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Livable cities

Nelson alumni offer their thoughts on urban futures

Spring/Summer 2014

What will the cities of the future be like? That question has been explored for centuries. It drives the plot in countless works of fiction and film, with visions ranging from Ernest Callenbach’s optimistic Ecotopia to the dark and dysfunctional Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

Entertainment aside, the matter of our metropolitan future has grown in urgency as the world rapidly urbanizes. Researchers, planners, investors and advocates face a difficult question: How can we design and build interconnected physical and social systems that enable cities to provide clean air and water, nutrition and health, quality housing, access to nature, civic engagement, and personal and economic security for all citizens?

As part of this special issue of In Common, we asked several Nelson Institute alumni to look 30 years down the road and imagine more livable, sustainable urban communities.


Matt Covert (M.S. ’12 ER)

Green Downtown program manager, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin

Matt Covert

"Sustainable cities in thirty years will have several notable features. First, metro areas will be more polycentric, meaning that older, inner-ring suburbs will develop walkable urban centers and increased population densities to support them.

"Second, sustainable cities will look quite different at a bird’s-eye view from current ones, as communities cope with changing climates by painting rooftops white (or growing them green), choosing renewable energy, and divesting in costly automobile infrastructure.

"Most importantly, cities will take an active role in their broader surroundings, using and mimicking healthy ecosystems to revolutionize the waste stream, stormwater runoff, and the urban food system."


Kimberly Beckett (ESC ’04)

Director of business relations, Downtown Akron 

Kimberly Beckett

"The livable city is comprised of vibrant, safe, diverse, healthy neighbor hoods close to employment centers and services. Neighbors have a variety of opportunities to be sociable and supportive of each other.There are ample green spaces where citizens can interact through physical activity and community gatherings.

"The center of the livable city is the downtown, which offers a variety of business, retail, residential, and arts, culture and entertainment opportunities.The downtown is the living room of the community; a place where the diversity of the community is displayed. Citizens believe in the city, believe they are important factors in its success and believe the city has something to offer them."


Michael Healy (M.S. ’09 ER)

Principal ecologist, Adaptive Restoration LLC

Michael Healy

"As an ecologist and naturalist, when I think of livable, sustainable cities, the definition of habitat comes to mind. Food, water, shelter and space, in the right arrangement.

"I think cities of the future will play a larger role in securing the ecosystem services that sustain them. A great example of this is the New York City Watershed Protection Program. By preserving the land, rivers and streams around its reservoirs, the city has avoided the cost of water filtration."


Betsy Ham (M.S. ’87 LR)

Director of land protection, Maine Coast Heritage Trust 

Betsy Ham

"I think every city needs places where people can experience a little 'country': pocket parks, walking and biking trails, community gardens, accessible and clean ponds and lakes; all these amenities make cities livable.

"You don’t have to go to a national park to appreciate nature; a one-acre vacant lot transformed into a garden can achieve the same results."


Nina Mukherji (M.S. ’09 CBSD)

Director of programs, Real Food Challenge

Nina Mukherji

"Politically stable societies have at least one thing in common: adequate access to food. To maintain this access in the face of climate change and increased transportation costs, cities will have to source most food from within or near their boundaries. Farmers will have to focus on growing soil (composting) and growing a diversity of crops, particularly those that are drought resistant.

"As more people find jobs as farmworkers and food service workers, it will be essential for those sectors to organize for better conditions.The most important ingredient for a sustainable city is a citizenry that stands together and is ready to organize when things go wrong."


Maria Powell (M.S. ’00 Ph.D. ’04 LR)

President, Midwest Environmental Justice Organization

Maria Powell

"In my imagined environmentally just city of the future, all people — regard less of race, gender, income or circumstances — live in an environment free of toxic pollution and have enough food and a home. Land, air, water and wildlife are healing from two centuries of abuse.

"To get there, our current destructive culture has ceased. Instead, permacul ture principles guide all decisions. All food, energy and resources are from this bioregion. Diverse government leaders prioritize human and environ mental health over economic growth — honestly and transparently engaging citizens. And educational institutions, embracing multicultural perspectives, nurture diverse, healthy local communities and ecosystems."

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