Kent LarsonThe future lies in cities. There are very few people who would argue with that, not least because there wouldn’t be room for all of us without cities! But cities are often seen as a problem. TED Global has curated a series of talks about the future of cities which make for interesting viewing.

Tech industry expert Stewart Brand notes that hundreds of people in the developing world are deserting villages to live in ‘squatter cities’: the biggest, and busiest, cities in the world. The inhabitants are working hard to leave poverty behind as fast as they can: author Robert Neuwirth finds squatter cities to be thriving industrial centres. And by providing places for millions of people to live, Brand believes that they have “defused the population bomb”. In his view, cities are certainly not the problem, a view shared by Jaime Lerner, a former mayor of Curitiba, in Brazil.

Lerner believes that design of cities is crucial to how they will be used and perceived. Every city can be improved in less than 3 years, he believes, by good design. For example, design of buses can change how they are used. Consider ‘bendy buses’: they are easy to board, speeding up bus journeys, and so making people more likely to use buses and reducing car journeys.

Design is also important to Majora Carter, an environmental justice campaigner from South Bronx. She describes environmental justice as making sure that no area has more environmental problems or benefits than any other – but in America, black people are twice as likely than white people to live in areas without parks, and with waste plants and power plants, and to have air pollution as a major problem. These problems are the direct results of land use decisions that did not take the community into account. Carter believes that involving grassroots movements in decision-making and planning is crucial to achieving cities that work for those who live in them, which echoes Lerner’s view on design.

Also from a design perspective, architect William McDonough discusses what buildings and products would look like if architects and designers considered “all children, all species, for all time”. Architect and technologist Kent Larson picks up this theme, by showcasing innovative designs suitable for use in a modern or future city, including folding cars and quick-change apartments, which he believes could make modern cities feel more like villages of the past. Journalist Alex Steffen also discusses innovations that may change how we live in cities, and particularly decrease car use, which would help to reduce climate change. Economist Paul Romer goes even further, suggesting a new model for cities, “charter cities”, with new rules. These would be city-size administrative states, that may be governed by a coalition of nations. He sees these as a way of supporting people in countries with ‘bad’ rule systems.

And finally, there are some cautionary tales: James Kunstler talks about how bad architecture can negate good intentions. He believes that many green spaces do not work for those for whom they were intended, echoing Majora Carter’s point about needing to have the right people around the table.

These fascinating talks about living in cities, now and in the future, are perhaps surprisingly similar in their broad conclusion: all the presenters believe that people are the most important element, and if cities are to be sustainable, they have to be designed for, and by, those who live in them.

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