Published on Sustainable Cities

Cities and Their Underwear

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BoxersThe next time you're in a new city, maybe jet-lagged, try to wake-up early and take a walk: The earlier the better. Watch as the city wakes, the merchants restock their shelves and workers take away the waste. Street sweepers and garbage collectors take advantage of the quiet streets; people open offices and stores; the calm before the rush. Perhaps your hotel is near a market – check out how early the bakers and farmers start working. A few newspapers are still delivered before the sun rises.

While walking and watching the city wake, also look beneath your feet. There the pipes deliver water and gas; sewers take away wastewater. And if you’re in Europe most of the electricity is delivered through underground piping as well (strange how cities in the US and Canada, where hurricanes are common, have most power lines above ground, while Europe, with fewer storms but more concern for aesthetics, have most power lines buried).

We rarely see, leave alone think about, a city's underworld. Strange considering how many workers help keep our cities working – there are more waste pickers, street sweepers and garbage collectors than soldiers (more than twice as many); retailing simple consumables and food is the world’s largest employer. The infrastructure that delivers our urban utilities, like water and energy, costs at least twice what we spend on health care. In many cities, it’s crumbling beneath our feet, or not yet built, and still urban services and infrastructure are rarely top of the political discourse.

A city's 'underwear' is often out of sight out of mind. Until something goes wrong: the food doesn’t arrive; the gasoline doesn’t pump; the electricity is off too long; the garbage stays underfoot. We need serviceable, sturdy underwear in all our cities. Remembering and glimpsing our cities underwear every now and then is a good thing – here today, and hopefully here tomorrow.

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons, Luis2492


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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