Sustainable Cities Are the Solution

Recent op-ed for The Guardian (London):

Despite our romantic ideas about nature, it will be well-run, energy-efficient cities that ultimately save us from ourselves

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a $25m, energy-efficient office building on the Brooklyn waterfront a few months back. The Perry Avenue Building features solar panels, rainwater-fed toilets and six rooftop windmills, which will produce 10% of its energy supply. "Wind power in this city," said the mayor, "is one of the solutions to our problem."

That problem – devising more sustainable cities – has rightfully drawn a great deal of attention of late. In February, Barack Obama created the White House office of urban affairs and quickly set about staffing it with experienced urban planners, to complement what many have called his "green dream team" on environmental policy.

Earlier this year in Strasburg, Obama acknowledged that the US bears the brunt of the responsibility for climate change. Combined with nearly $50bn in infrastructure spending in the stimulus package, the new administration's emphasis on building better cities is clear.

As for New York, the new Brooklyn building is part of a $250m programme to make Brooklyn's Navy Yard a hub for green industry, just one aspect of the mayor's broader plan to make the city more eco-friendly. When he launched PlanNYC two years ago, Bloomberg pointed out that the world's cities were responsible for 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Former US president Bill Clinton and UN officials have quoted the same figure.

This bit of data would mean city dwellers emit nearly four times as much as their rural counterparts. (The UN estimates that humanity became more urban than rural in 2008. Right now, the global populations of urban and rural folk are roughly the same.) Put another way, living in a city is almost four times as polluting as living outside of one.

Thankfully, the figure turns out to be wildly inaccurate.

The carbon footprint of urban dwellers is relatively light, says a report by David Dodman in the April issue of Environment and Urbanisation. Dodman, a researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development, examined emissions reports from cities in the Americas, Asia and Europe.

He found that New Yorkers emit a third less greenhouse gases than the average American and that Barcelonans and Londoners emit about half of their national averages. And urban Brazilians are truly green: the residents of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro are responsible for only one-third the national emissions average. Dodman's paper complements an earlier study by IIED senior fellow David Satterthwaite, who argued that cities emit about 40% of all greenhouse gases, as opposed to the oft-cited 80%.

On average, then, people who live in small towns and rural areas emit 50% more greenhouse gases than city folk. That cities may be part of the solution, however, does not mean that efforts like Bloomberg's PlanNYC are misplaced. Precisely the opposite is true.

By 2050, some 70% of us will live in urban settings, and it will ultimately be well-managed urban environments, with smart, energy-efficient buildings, power systems, transport and planning, that will save us from ourselves. Seeking better ways to do precisely that, a constellation of designers, architects and academics gathered at a conference on "ecological urbanism" at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design earlier this year.

Mitchell Joachim, who teaches architecture and design at Columbia University and was selected by Wired magazine as one of 15 people Obama should listen to, presented his vision for a collapsible and stackable electric city car, which would hang at public recharging stations, available for shared use.

He also explained "meat tectonics". Aiming to use meat proteins developed in a lab as building material, Joachim presented a digital rendering of an armadillo-shaped, kidney-coloured home. "It's very ugly, we know that," he said. "We're not sure what a meat house is supposed to look like."

Dorothee Imbert, associate professor in landscape architecture at Harvard, pointed to urban farming, a trend that has taken root in Detroit, New York, Milwaukee and a handful of international cities. Imbert mentioned her own student-assisted organic farms in Boston, yet acknowledged that adequate food supplies for future cities "would require rethinking of landscape in the building process".

Pritzker-winning Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is thinking regionally. The Harvard professor and designer of the MC Escher-esque CCTV building in Beijing talked about his Zeekracht ("sea power" in Dutch), a plan for oceanic wind farms across the North Sea that would provide energy to much of northern Europe. With its constant high winds, shallow waters and advanced renewable industries, Koolhaas believes the North Sea offers energy potential approaching that of Persian Gulf oil.

His plan, which includes production belts in a half-dozen urban centres on or near the sea, energy cooperation and clean-tech research centres, is the type of project that, ideally, will both preserve green spaces and increase urban sustainability.

Another is a recently approved high-speed rail project in California, which will link that state's southern and northern hubs. Obama's stimulus package contains $8bn for high-speed and urban rail projects. That amount is nowhere near enough to install networks on a European scale, but, like windmills on the Brooklyn waterfront, it's a step in the right direction.

Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden Pond "to live deliberately", as he put it. But shortly thereafter the American naturalist and philosopher accidentally burned over a hundred acres of pristine Massachusetts woodlands. We can no longer afford to be like Thoreau. If we want to continue to romanticise our natural world, we, as a civilisation, must also avoid it.

Games Lessons

My latest Economist story, from Sept 3rd issue:

It sounds like a cop-out, but the future of schooling may lie with video games

SINCE the beginning of mass education, schools have relied on what is known in educational circles as “chalk and talk”. Chalk and blackboard may sometimes be replaced by felt-tip pens and a whiteboard, and electronics in the form of computers may sometimes be bolted on, but the idea of a pedagogue leading his pupils more or less willingly through a day based on periods of study of recognisable academic disciplines, such as mathematics, physics, history, geography and whatever the local language happens to be, has rarely been abandoned.

Abandoning it, though, is what Katie Salen hopes to do. Ms Salen is a games designer and a professor of design and technology at Parsons The New School for Design, in New York. She is also the moving spirit behind Quest to Learn, a new, taxpayer-funded school in that city which is about to open its doors to pupils who will never suffer the indignity of snoring through double French but will, rather, spend their entire days playing games.

Quest to Learn draws on many roots. One is the research of James Gee of the University of Wisconsin. In 2003 Dr Gee published a book called “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy”, in which he argued that playing such games helps people develop a sense of identity, grasp meaning, learn to follow commands and even pick role models. Another is the MacArthur Foundation’s digital media and learning initiative, which began in 2006 and which has acted as a test-bed for some of Ms Salen’s ideas about educational-games design. A third is the success of the Bank Street School for Children, an independent primary school in New York that practises what its parent, the nearby Bank Street College of Education, preaches in the way of interdisciplinary teaching methods and the encouragement of pupil collaboration.

Ms Salen is, in effect, seeking to mechanise Bank Street’s methods by transferring much of the pedagogic effort from the teachers themselves (who will now act in an advisory role) to a set of video games that she and her colleagues have devised. Instead of chalk and talk, children learn by doing—and do so in a way that tears up the usual subject-based curriculum altogether.

Periods of maths, science, history and so on are no more. Quest to Learn’s school day will, rather, be divided into four 90-minute blocks devoted to the study of “domains”. Such domains include Codeworlds (a combination of mathematics and English), Being, Space and Place (English and social studies), The Way Things Work (maths and science) and Sports for the Mind (game design and digital literacy). Each domain concludes with a two-week examination called a “Boss Level”—a common phrase in video-game parlance.

In one of the units of Being, Space and Place, for example, pupils take on the role of an ancient Spartan who has to assess Athenian strengths and recommend a course of action. In doing so, they learn bits of history, geography and public policy. In a unit of The Way Things Work, they try to inhabit the minds of scientists devising a pathway for a beam of light to reach a target. This lesson touches on maths, optics—and, the organisers hope, creative thinking and teamwork. Another Way-Things-Work unit asks pupils to imagine they are pyramid-builders in ancient Egypt. This means learning about maths and engineering, and something about the country’s religion and geography.

Whether things will work the way Ms Salen hopes will, itself, take a few years to find out. The school plans to admit pupils at the age of 12 and keep them until they are 18, so the first batch will not leave until 2016. If it fails, traditionalists will no doubt scoff at the idea that teaching through playing games was ever seriously entertained. If it succeeds, though, it will provide a model that could make chalk and talk redundant. And it will have shown that in education, as in other fields of activity, it is not enough just to apply new technologies to existing processes—for maximum effect you have to apply them in new and imaginative ways.