Environment and the City of the Future

By Alejandro Angulo

We are at a decisive moment for envisioning how to build the city of the near future in Mexico. The new urban vision must consider the environmental impacts in many areas: using renewable energies and designing energy efficiently; incorporating waste management into a circular economy; lowering carbon emissions in massive public services; incorporating nature into the city; restoring biodiversity and pollinating gardens; creating carbon reservoirs, and treating and reusing wastewater. It also means balancing low and high-density development, protecting and recharging aquifers, restoring soil in areas of agricultural use, mitigating noise in areas of mixed-use, promoting public spaces for urban gardens and living pharmacies, and reducing light pollution caused by billboards and advertisements.

All this might appear overwhelming and impossible to deal with each separately. However, all these issues must be addressed systematically. Cities have always been the centers of the development of civilizations, and even more so today as humanity becomes increasingly urban. 

It is crucial to define a conceptual framework for the future and develop concrete, grounded, strategies to operate in cities. It is about reconstructing the concept of “urbanity” through a systemic approach and understanding the city as a complex system far from equilibrium, dynamic and open to its surroundings. Synecism—the intensity and variety of exchanges of resources and information between different actors—is key to developing urban communities. 

Cities are almost as old as humanity, but the discipline of urban studies as we know it today is only a little over a century old. The problems intended to be solved in cities are only growing and gaining in complexity and importance. The frustration is evident when studies show that cities and the tools to improve them produce collateral damage. There is a dependence on private transportation, loss of peri-urban rural land, and gentrification. And there is an increase in negative factors that should be reduced or eliminated, like a bigger carbon footprint and greater social and economic segregation. 

Despite all the effort and resources invested, the gap between the cities planned by urban planners and the actual cities we see increases more and more.

The origins of modern urban planning lie in the rapid urbanization that occurred in Europe from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century. Because of the belief that the “invisible hand” of the market would not “naturally” order this growth, there were unprecedented efforts to organize cities environmentally and socially to a magnitude never reached before. Congestion was thought to be the cause of all the problems that emerged in growing urban centers. Urban policies to control growth decentralized the population. 

Segregating uses to avoid overcrowding, reducing building and housing density, and establishing new spatial standards for land occupation were seen as important. Seeing the city as a mechanism that works according to criteria set a priori. It externally led to a design process that defines its form of operation and leaves no room for “informalism” or chance. The city was seen as a physical construction that could be successfully organized, controlled, and modified to promote certain social and productive processes.

The emerging trends in contemporary urban planning propose a break with the hegemonic conceptual and operational lines. They take into account the dynamic, complex, and interdependent nature of urban centers, suggesting interventions within the urban system continuously and flexibly—understanding the city as a complex system with internal processes and part of a larger network of human activities. 

Numerous urban scholars have addressed the complexity of the city. What has been proposed is a systemic approach taking the city as a complex system in development. The system is understood as a set of elements that are more than the sum of its parts and focuses on basic principles of organization.

The systemic approach deals with connectivity and accessibility, relationships and exchanges, synergy and context. The parts are understood in their relationship with the whole, and the complexity comes from the interactions, not the individual pieces. The elements that make up a system can be very simple, but the density of the interactions makes the more complex and gradual emergence of patterns and processes.

By conceptualizing the city as a complex system, an alternative vision of production and development of the urban center emerges. It means understanding the complex interrelation of social, environmental, economic, political, and spatial dimensions, as well as the diversity between individuals, resources, and exchange flows. In this scenario, microscale phenomena impact the macro-scale and vice versa. The greatest sustainability will come from efficiency, resilience, and adaptability—with social, environmental, economic, political, territorial, and technological dimensions.