Jesús Rey Rocha / Carmen Andrade (*)

Today’s clearly perceptible environmental and social problems have induced an equally perceptible need to revisit the role of cities in our lives.  The importance of that pursuit is acknowledged in the United Nations’ (UN) sustainable development goals (SDGs), around which advanced economies structure many of their political initiatives: Goal 11 specifically aims to ‘make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. The considerations set out below constitute an attempt to pool ideas from a number of wholly distinct professional specialities.

Historic and geographic perspectives

Simplifying greatly, three very different urban models can be identified in today’s world. One is typical of Latin America, with conurbations such as Mexico City or São Paulo, where unplanned growth has given rise to disorderly clusters of new housing built at random. In contrast, in the United States, Canada and many European countries, cities have a central core of office buildings and high rises with widely sprawling residential suburbs. That generates very heavy traffic at rush hours, often mitigated with efficient public transport. A third model is found in a number of Asian countries such as China and South Korea, whose very dense populations reside in the tall buildings that prevail in their megacities.

Urban planning trends. Environmental and social complexities

The general trend in recent decades has been the migration of inhabitants in smaller towns to large cities. The covid-19 pandemic has intensified the advantages and drawbacks of that dynamic, inducing a possible change of paradigm in which a growing number of city centre dwellers move to single family dwellings, normally on the outskirts. Some have even relocated in small villages, seizing the information and communication technology-supported opportunity to work remotely. The aim is less to leave city life than to gain more living space, come into closer contact with nature (symbolised by gardens) and only secondarily benefit from a less congested, less polluted environment.

Housing and city type logically go hand-in-hand. That association poses the question, and the challenge, of how to compatibilise development with the need for associating to improve services, well-being and the recreational possibilities just outside the doorstep. This is one of the core issues addressed by urban planners and architects in their interaction with municipal and national authorities. The economic dimension is a key component in that debate given the enormous weight of the value of developed land but also its importance for fruitful administrative management. That in turn involves not only the fiscal component but also culturally interconnected strategic evolution.

Citizens’ voice

Many convergent and divergent, top-down flowing vectors originating in politics, architecture and urban planning can be identified. The need to strike a balance tailored to each society is of major importance for individual well-being, for it affects one of life’s most intimate components, our dwelling, while also impacting social issues such as urban space for collective use and socialisation. Bottom-up participation rooted in the citizenry is therefore a convergent vector of utmost relevance. Those of us who are city dwellers should make our presence felt more keenly, for users’ voice, the day-to-day experience and wisdom of city inhabitants, is one of the essentials in the design of any city’s future. Greater citizen involvement in municipal housing policies, either directly or through any of the numerous social and political platforms in place, is an imperative.

In that regard, as with covid-19, science and experts as well as users play a key role, although decisions are made by the authorities presumably for the common good. Decisions must be adopted by those responsible, but only after matters have been widely debated by all the stakeholders.

In a radical and provocative proposal put forward in his book Darwin Comes to Town, evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen contends that it might be wise to mistrust municipal authorities to manage a much more evolutionarily intelligent version of the urban ecosystem. As staunch supporters of cooperation the present authors believe a better tactic is to confide in citizens and institutions both, to take a middle road involving horizontal cooperation that draws from collective intelligence to reach common objectives.

The voice of science

The voice of science is another requisite in that approach. Many elements determine cities’ characteristics and habitability, including psychological, sociological, anthropological and economic factors as well as questions associated with public and individual health and biodiversity. Elements such as light, sound, temperature, the absence of pollution, space, plant life, pace and the elimination of noise are among the components that contribute to life’s coherence. The time has come to design cities where the priorities are people’s needs and well-being for, as pointed out by Gabi Martínez in his book Naturalmente urbano, urban design and planning have for too long been conditioned by the needs of automobiles along with economic and speculative interests.

Dialogue is therefore indispensable for integrating and interconnecting the various visions, needs and proposals. In short, an interdisciplinary approach is required to enrich the engineering and architecture practised by urban planners by taking all the aforementioned factors into consideration.

For more sustainable cities

Sustainability depends on how the priorities for future cities are defined: a commitment to future generations to leave them a world neither unsustainably mortgaged nor lacking any of today’s resources.

One determinant in that equation is traffic. We all find travelling in our vehicles highly convenient, while acknowledging that they generate heavily polluted city centres. One moderately successful solution is public transport, although the pandemic has lowered passenger loads radically due to the greater risk of infection. Whilst vehicles occupying less space such as bi- and motorcycles would be an alternative, they are accident-prone and scantly suitable in areas with older inhabitants. To date, then, city dynamics clash with transport dynamics, while no satisfactory solutions are in sight.

Another proposal is to organise cities into self-sufficient neighbourhoods, like a cluster of villages where workplaces are nearby. In that case, however, how would city growth be planned? In places where whole new neighbourhoods are built it might work, although it takes time to develop a sense of community there and provide sufficient services for residents.

For interdisciplinary and humanistic urban planning

Ideally, urban planning should be interdisciplinary, humanistic, evolutionary, eco-friendly and citizen-oriented: drawing from Alexander von Humboldt’s planetary focus, it should envisage cities as organisms with inter-related and inter-dependent components. It should also borrow from Charles Darwin’s theories and view cities from an evolutionary perspective, as entities that evolve and change in response to pressure, challenges and opportunities, adapting to their human and other inhabitants’ new needs. More contemporary references also merit mention. A case in point is Salvador Rueda, instigator of the ‘superblock’ concept and practical example of the multi-disciplinarity that informs urban planning today. Biologist and psychologist, Rueda draws for inspiration directly from Humboldt himself, as well as from multi-talented engineer and urban planner Ildefons Cerdá and from Ramón Margalef, world-renowned ecologist deemed one of Spain’s most prominent twentieth-century scientists.

Many voices contend that cities and their growth call for radical repositioning, something that seems increasingly obvious in light of the covid-19 pandemic and environmental deterioration. As citizens we should not shrug off concerns over what our cities will be like in future, for otherwise the next generation will bear the consequences. In particular, we should not simply assume from the outset that only we citizens are entitled to an opinion. We must steep ourselves in and then use scientific knowledge as grounds for decision-making. Science, in the case of cities, is not practised by urban planners only, but also by engineers, architects and hosts of other actors.


(*) Jesús Rey Rocha is scientific researcher at the Spanish National Research Council’s (CSIC) Institute of Philosophy and member of the Governing Board of AEAC, the Spanish association for scientific advancement. Carmen Andrade, AEAC Vice-President and retired research professor formerly at the CSIC’s Eduardo Torroja Institute for Construction Science, is presently visiting research professor at the International Centre for Numerical Methods in Engineering (CIMNE). Emilio Muñoz Ruiz, Chairman of the AEAC Advisory Board, also contributed to this article.

This article was originally published in Spanish in ‘Ethic’: Ciudades sostenibles: seguridad ante las incertidumbres