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A Tale of Too Many Cities: Happy Birthday Charles Dickens

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Charles DickensThis year marks the 200th birthday for Charles Dickens who is likely the best-known social commentator who documented the more troublesome aspects of the Industrial Revolution and the start of the world’s headlong rush to urbanize. Dickens’ writings give a ringside seat to the turmoil London, and Paris, faced over two hundred years ago. That Dickens’ vantage point was London only made sense; it had just surpassed Beijing as the world’s largest city, and arguably is the birthplace of capitalism and industrialization.

The big question now is, where in the world would today’s most important social commentator choose to live? We obviously know it would be a big city as cities are the most powerful determinants of our futures. But what city best captures today’s and tomorrow’s social milieu?

From Oklahoma City to Kabul

Rana Amirtahmasebi's picture

It’s not often that the Mayor of Kabul visits Washington DC. So when Mohammad Younis Nawandish was invited to participate in a panel discussion on green growth as part of The World Bank’s Urban Sector Day, you can only imagine the clamor for seats in the auditorium. And Mayor Nawandish did not disappoint; neither did fellow panelist Mick Cornett, Mayor of Oklahoma City.

“Rome was not built in one day, but Oklahoma City was,” Mayor Cornett had declared in his earlier keynote address. As the result of a Land Run in 1889, Oklahoma City’s population went from zero to 10,000 within 24 hours. “And our City Planning Department is still paying for it,” the Mayor jokingly added.

Urbanization: The Half-Time Score

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Personal affluence up 3000%; people living in extreme poverty down from about 75% to 20%; atmospheric CO2 concentration up from 280 ppm to 393.5 ppm; at least 700 known species lost; 1.3 billion hectares with moderate to severe soil degradation; big fish in the oceans – more than 90% gone.

The starting gun for the first half of industrialization – globalization – urbanization sounded in 1784 when James Watt, William Murdoch and Matthew Boulton’s efforts culminated in a patent award for the “steam locomotive”. That’s when the urbanization race began in earnest. Half of us now live in cities, with 185,000 more streaming in every day.

Spaceship city: drinking wastewater, and going back to the future

Sintana Vergara's picture

Seattle, WA

One of the marvels of the modern city is its ability to make waste disappear. Along with electricity, water, and the internet, sophisticated waste networks allow residents to discard or flush away any signs of urban consumption. But this may be changing. As cities increasingly face the prospect of droughts and uncertainty about future water availability due to climate change, a new source of water is now being explored that might prompt city residents to pay close attention to its origin and fate: their toilets.

Wastewater reuse – known as “reclaimed water” to proponents, and “toilet to tap” to critics – is used to augment supply in two prime water-scarce environments: spaceships and urban areas. Though resistance to wastewater reuse is mostly psychological, citizen’s disgust is balanced by three realities:

UN Panel's Recommendations for Cities as a Vehicle for Sustainable Development

Maggie Comstock's picture

Rickshaws in cityEarlier this month, the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability released a report of recommended outcomes for the Rio+20 conference in June. The report, Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing, outlines both long- and short-term goals for governments, civil society and the private sector. These recommendations address all facets of resiliency, including climatic, economic and social. Below are a few of the UN Panel’s key recommendations that align with the goals of sustainable communities, many of which are already being addressed by the green building industry.

“Cities and local communities have a major role to play in advancing a real sustainable development agenda on the ground.”

Love and the City: Happy Valentine’s Day

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment PlantUrbanists are quick to champion the benefits of cities and how they drive economic growth, education, health improvements, and if built and managed well are the best way to achieve ‘sustainable development.’ But rarely do we talk about how cities nurture and encourage love, not to mention great parties, rock and roll, and all those passionate sporting events.

Cities don’t make love possible, but they sure do make it easier. Cities are all about connections, opportunities and logistical challenges. Take Valentine’s Day and the ‘average guy’ in the US. He will spend about $168 this year to celebrate, and woo, his love (women spend about half that). Over the last six weeks about 700 million fresh cut flowers passed through Miami International to be processed at one of the 23 chilled warehouses within five miles of the airport. Making sure no pests or contraband were brought in with the flowers required several thousand US Customs and Agriculture officers working round the clock.

Why Carbon can be a Game Changer for Wealthy Cities

Chris Kennedy's picture

A recent open letter to the Bank of England raising concerns over the high level of black carbon assets held on London's stock exchange should be noted by urban leaders around the globe. Echoing an earlier commentary by Sir Nicholas Stern in the Financial Times, the letter raises profound questions about the financial risk and exposure of companies, investors and the UK economy stemming from holdings of high carbon assets. Indeed exposure to high carbon investments could be the game changer that determines which global financial centres rise, and which fall, in the immediate future.

London is without doubt a leading financial centre today, likely second only to New York City, but it has not always been that way. French historian Fernand Braudel skilfully traced the history of preeminent western financial centres, from Venice in 1500, via Antwerp, Genoa, Amsterdam, and London, with New York City emerging as the world's financial hegemon around 1930.

My Father’s Ford – A New Model for Cities

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Ford ShowroomMy father is a Ford man he's driven nothing but since 1958. When I was a kid I would go with him every fall to the new models showroom party at Lange and Fetter Ford Motors in Trenton, Canada. I would get a balloon, some cake and maybe get to sit in a new car (spilled the cake on the new seat one year). Since being a kid I’ve always been amazed how car manufacturers manage to come out with yet another new version every year. Some years it would just be the lights that changed, in other years there might be a whole remake of the model, or an entirely new model might be introduced.

Now I’m a boring old man and drive a 2008 Toyota Camry. The back seat’s spacious enough for the girls, and I really would look like a fool with a middle-age crisis if I bought that red Mustang I coveted as a kid. Also, I now work on city issues, and let’s face it: an electric car (where electric generation has low carbon emissions) or a Smart Car is the way to go (after we get a smaller dog). But the way car manufacturers have provided new models every year for more than 80 years is a very important lesson for those of us working on cities.

The North American Urban Agriculture Experience

Rana Amirtahmasebi's picture

In a country where, in some places, a burger barely costs a dollar while a bag of baby carrots is priced nearly thrice as much, there’s plenty of work to be done to make healthy foods affordable – and accessible. There is no denying that food insecurity (of which cheap and nutritionally inadequate junk food is a major manifestation) is a concern in the US. In fact, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) nearly 14.5 per cent of Americans experienced food insecurity at some point in 2010.

To fight this, many cities across the US are assessing their food production potential and creating special legislation for promoting urban agriculture. Let me clarify that “urban” agriculture does not imply turning down high-density buildings in the city centers to build farms. As an urban planner I am a supporter of higher densities. However, the leftover land around the cities or the residential open spaces with no other obvious use could be used as productive fragments of land within the cities. But more on this later - maybe another blog entry!

In the US, urban agriculture began at the grassroots level as a social justice movement to combat food insecurity among under-privileged communities. Within a couple of decades, a growing demand resulted in local governments making an active effort to support urban agriculture. Sometime ago I documented some of New Orleans’ urban farms with my video camera.

It’s Time to Scale Up - and Speed Up

Peter Head's picture

Prof Peter Head
Director, Arup and Executive Chairman, The Ecological Sequestration Trust

Ecological Sequestration Trust logoProf Peter Head will share his work with The Ecological Sequestration Trust through a monthly blog on sustainable cities. For more information on the Trust log on to

Earlier this month, I gave a presentation to the urban team at The World Bank about the work of our newly formed UK Charity, The Ecological Sequestration Trust.

I created the Charity in April 2011 because I could see, through the work of my brilliant global planning team in Arup that, while the path towards a low carbon resilient world was getting clearer, the overall rate of change is too slow to meet the required reduction of emissions and ecological footprint to create a more stable world for us to live in. We need to scale up - and speed up.