Standing in the middle of the cloud forest in my home country of Costa Rica  as a child I made the choice to dedicate my life to protecting the environment. Back then, the first image that came to mind when thinking about biodiversity conservation was definitely not that of a flourishing city. Fast forward 20 years and you’ll find the same environmentalist sitting in front of a computer in an office working on the challenges cities face as a result of climate change. What is a biologist doing working on cities? Well, I’m basically doing what I promised myself to do as a child… just from a different angle and in an apparently less exotic setting.
While many of us might assume avid environmentalists are people who spend their time surrounded by nature, our increasingly complex world demands that we approach environmental protection from multiple angles. According to intellectuals such as Harvard economist Edward Glaeser , urbanization has the potential to solve many of our environmental challenges by taking people away from natural areas and increasing population density in city areas. In his words, “all that is leafy is not necessarily green.” Glaeser’s research  with UCLA Professor, Matthew Kahn , has shown that living in high-rise buildings in higher density areas will contribute more to protecting the environment than living in low-density areas surrounded by greenery. This is due to the increase in GHG emissions that comes from driving long distances and the energy inefficiency that results from a detached house as compared to an urban apartment (which in the US uses about 83% less electricity than a family house). Additionally, since there are more people concentrated in smaller spaces, resources (electricity, food, heat, solid waste collection, transportation and other forms of public services) are shared, minimizing resource consumption. Cities also generate knowledge by bringing people together, making room for human capital, innovation, development of new ideas, information-sharing and, in some cases, social and political change. Consider the Occupy Movement  in the US or the Arab Spring . Whether or not you agree with either of these movements, both emerged and solidified in cities and mobilized large numbers of civilians to protest for social, political, economic and environmental change.
At the same time, we are not unfamiliar with the environmental problems that result from poor urban planning: climate change, air, soil and water pollution and an increase in vulnerability to natural hazards, among others. During the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) in early April, World Bank president, Robert Zoellick  highlighted the negative impacts urbanization can have on development, particularly in a rapidly urbanizing country like China where 70% of the population is expected to be urban by 2030. China’s population is expected to peak by 2030, and by that time, their urban population alone will be larger than the combined populations of today’s 100 largest cities. According to President Zoellick, the benefits of urbanization (namely, spill-over economic effects and opportunities such as education, health and jobs) could create difficulties if not handled properly.
The fact of the matter is we live in a world in which the urban and natural environments are deeply intertwined; the environment has now become a primary urban concern, alongside infrastructure and social development. Current population and urbanization rates are quickly reducing the distance between the architectural human settlement and the untouched wilderness, forcing us to develop new technologies (such as renewable energy sources and greener designs) that will sustain an ever-growing urban population while preserving the natural environment.
Now the real challenge lies in a shift in values and perceptions at all levels of society. We know large numbers of people are going to populate the world’s cities in the coming years, so why not strive to build environmentally sound, well-integrated and livable cities? The city of the future is one that has a mutually rewarding relationship with the natural environment, one which recognizes and values its natural resources and its citizens and builds on these to ensure economic, social and political sustainability. Planning the city of the future will require input from multiple perspectives and professional angles – the architect, the engineer, the construction worker, the health professional, the politician, the economist, the urban planner, the sociologist, the communications specialist and… why not?, the biologist.