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How Cities of the Future Are Embracing Nature

Urban designer Alexandros Washburn breaks down how cities are reimagining their relationship with the natural world, and where a new symbiotic future is already taking shape.

Released on 02/28/2023


Hi, I'm Alex Washburn, and I'm an urban designer.

[Narrator] Alex was chief urban designer

in New York City for almost a decade,

and helped build things like the Highline, Hudson Yards,

and the Times Square Pedestrian Park.

[Alex] As urban designers, we don't build cities.

We design the tools that change cities for the better.

[Narrator] Today, to face the dangers of climate change,

cities must become more sustainable.

Melting icecaps, rising sea levels, extreme temperatures

and intense superstorms continue to devastate communities.

Cities are often looked at as the problem

in sustainability, but in truth, cities are the solution.

Cities can be the greenest, most sustainable places

on earth if we design them right.

Today, I'm gonna break down how cities

around the globe are changing for a more sustainable future.

[soothing music]

[uplifting music]

If you walk down the street in Singapore,

you might look up and see a very tall building,

but it's covered in greenery.

There's a hotel in Singapore called the Park Royal.

It's got some solar panels on the roof,

as it should, generating electricity.

But it's actually covered in another sort of solar panel.

And by that, I mean plants, every level.

What are those plants doing?

They're taking sunlight and using photosynthesis

to turn solar energy into biomass.

And what is that biomass doing?

It's creating a microclimate.

It's creating shade and cooling the building,

creating oxygen, doing all sorts of things

that change the building from being just a human creation

into something that's integral with nature,

and reinforcing this idea that cities and nature are one.

They are habitats for humans.

And that's where the road of sustainability leads.

It's hot there.

You can spend a lot of energy running

air conditioners and emitting a lot of carbon.

Or you can work with the plant life

that is already there to create these microclimates

that lower the temperature where it matters most,

which is where we walk.

Data is very important in managing

a complex city to be sustainable.

Singapore takes it a step further.

Singapore uses data on every single tree.

Do they need water, do they need fertilizer?

There is a government file on each one.

In the end, this helps maintain

a vital piece of infrastructure,

because the trees, they're shading,

they're oxygen-producing, all the benefits we talked about.

And their health has to be a priority.

The city in a garden approach that Singapore is pioneering

is also something we've tried in colder climates.

I'd say one of the more successful is a project

called the Bosco Verticale in Milan.

It's an apartment building, very tall,

but it's covered in trees.

Trees look very happy on every balcony.

If you can do it in Milan's climate

which is not quite northern European,

but it's colder than Mediterranean,

you can do it just about anywhere.

And understand that the future lies in this marriage.

[soothing music]

So I went to Dubai to check out the expo last year.

You know, Dubai is a very interesting city,

but it's a very, very, very hot climate.

And you'd think it's very hard to walk around,

given those extremes in temperature.

Well, that's why this expo was interesting.

First of all, it's connected to the rest

of the city by transit, and the subway that goes there

is the easiest way to get there.

If you drive there, you're actually further

away from the expo than if you took public transportation.

That's success number one.

Success number two is to make it pleasant to walk around.

And to do that, you need to control

the amount of sun that hits the ground.

You need to create a microclimate.

And you need to be able to do that continuously.

You'll see these structures, they're not really trees,

but they're frameworks, and vines are growing all over them.

The soil isn't great for things like oak trees.

The climate isn't right.

But you can make foliage grow up into a tree form.

Once that happens, you have a shade canopy.

Look at the way that it's opened to cross breezes.

Look at the way that the buildings are placed

in relationship to the walkable paths.

There are green strips in between.

You can even change the humidity by misting on dry days

or turning on fans and creating airflow on humid days.

If you wanted to achieve these pleasant climates,

normally you'd spend an enormous

amount of energy on air conditioning.

The expo's looking for ways of doing that passively,

using a minimum of energy, and using a maximum

of plant life and air circulation.

The next test is coming.

Can that framework of a walkable

expo become a walkable city?

If it succeeds, Dubai will have proved

something very important for the next century.

It's proved that the city in an extreme climate

can create a walkable neighborhood

where everything is within reach, which makes it even less

dependent on cars, even more sustainable,

less carbon being emitted, and more character being created.

It's a bold experiment.

I'm eager to go back and see how they're doing.

[soothing music]

So one of the biggest issues

in climate change is rising sea levels.

There are one billion people around the world who live

within 10 feet of current sea level, and it's rising.

That makes you vulnerable.

Now, these people are primarily

at the edges of established coastal cities.

You can't abandon the city.

You have billions and trillions of dollars even

invested in infrastructure, and you have history as well.

How do you deal with it, how do you stay safe?

People in Amsterdam, the city of canals,

they've been living on houseboats for several hundred years.

That's nothing new.

But what about boat houses?

Schoonschip is a floating neighborhood

in Amsterdam that is trying to address

the challenges of rising sea level.

It's experimental, let's say.

But they've solved the physical issue

of how to make your house move up and down

with the changing of the sea levels.

But imagine if you can bring to all the residents

of coastal cities, whether you're in Shanghai or Seattle,

and know that you can inhabit the water's edge safely.

Again, that's a very, very worthwhile achievement.

The neighborhood of Schoonschip attracts a resident

who's all in on sustainability.

They don't own cars,

they have a car share program for the neighborhood.

They harvest rainwater, they use solar power.

They transfer thermal energy from the canals.

These people are committed to finding a solution.

And they're doing it in a way that is also social,

which is something to look at.

Because what happens when 100 like-minded people

get together, what can they accomplish?

Or what happens when 1,000 like-minded people get together?

Or a million or a billion?

Because there are a billion people living

within 10 feet of current sea level.

So when you go to Amsterdam,

take your selfies on the canals, you can't beat that.

But get on a bike and go out and see Schoonschip.

See how the houses are connected to the shore.

See what the roofs look like.

Check out how much space there is to walk versus to park.

And you're gonna see a few clues about maybe how your city

can change and adapt for climate change,

especially if you live on a coast.

As a New York urban designer,

you kind of have a love-hate relationship with Paris.

They do everything right.

They've been doing it right for a long time.

Well, we've been stealing their ideas,

and I'm proud to admit it.

If you look at the Highline in New York City,

great public space, reuse of infrastructure,

really transformed a whole part of Manhattan.

Paris, they did something called

the Promenade Plantee a few years before.

Look at our bike share system in New York City.

Well, Paris did it first.

Cities learn from each other.

But Paris is a city that gets an enormous amount right

about sustainability because it starts with the very basic

premise that it's beautiful to walk.

Walkability is something that is very difficult to achieve,

but it's something that the French are very, very good at.

In fact, they are taking already a very walkable street,

the Champs-Elysees, the most famous street in the world,

and they're putting it on a road diet.

A road diet is a way of reducing the amount

of width in the street devoted to cars

and increasing it to pedestrians.

In the Champs-Elysees project,

the French are taking it a step further.

It's gonna feel more like a park in the end than a street.

And once it feels like a park, you've achieved something

very few cities can achieve, but something necessary

for the sustainability of every city.

To get from here to there should feel

like a walk in the park.

And if every movement in the city

has that same joy and helpfulness, you will go very far

towards reaching your sustainability goals.

All right, move over Champs-Elysees,

Let's show you an American road diet.

This is Stapleton on Staten Island.

What we're trying to do here is reduce

the travel lane to the minimum.

And in America, that's 12 feet.

You can see that right here in the middle of this.

Then there's a parking lane that's eight feet wide,

but it's not continuous.

Every fifth parking spot, we have a little bump out,

which can have a secondary tree.

And then the main parts of the right of way,

get a double row of trees here on the left,

single row of trees here on the right.

And then the building wall begins at this edge.

Now you've got kind of a cathedral

of tree branches that you can walk along here.

And that is more important

than the right of way for the cars.

This puts the pedestrian first.

So eat your heart out Paris,

Staten Island's got your number.

Paris is turning streets into parks,

and it's playing into this idea of the 15 minute city.

Now, what I mean by that is a neighborhood

where you can do everything you need to do in a day,

work, shop, play, meet friends,

all within a 15 minute walk of each other.

You can feel it in Brooklyn in certain neighborhoods.

You don't want to leave.

I think the future is a fine grain 15 minute neighborhood

where you can see all of life right there.

In Paris, God love them, they're doing it first.

[soothing music]

Now, Copenhagen has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2025.

They're still using a lot of energy though.

Well, neutrality means balance.

In other words, they're creating as much

or more sustainable energy as they are using.

The power plant generates excess heat,

most places in the world would

just let that go up the tailpipe.

In Copenhagen, the heat is captured and recycled

into the heating system of entire districts.

The fruits of that are an efficiency

that gets you to neutrality.

If you take that principle of efficiency and creativity,

just how far can you go with it?

Okay, they make their energy not out of oil,

but out of trash, okay, so they're taking the trash

out of the stream and converting it in energy.

And to top it all off, they put a ski slope on top.

This power plant ski slope thing

has now turned into an attraction.

And it's got climbing walls.

And now more and more people come to see

the people skiing or climbing or socializing.

You've made a new town center practically here.

So what's the lesson of Copenhagen?

For me, it's that yes, you can consume,

as long as you also create and reach balance.

This is the future.

[soothing music]

How did we get here, to the point that we need

to fix our cities, to the point where we need

to talk about walkability, that we need to go

on road diets, and we need to find ways

of moving that don't emit carbon.

Well, it all goes back to a century ago.

A group of European intellectuals

came up with rules for a modern city.

It's called the Charter of Athens.

And these people all went on to become the deans

of important architectural schools.

But the essential issue is a group of people

got together and said let's separate everything

in a city and connect it all by car.

That's what's made our cities

so unsustainable for the last 100 years.

They celebrated their discovery, or their manifesto

as they called it, of the separation of uses

in a place where all the uses were mixed.

They went to have a party on the island of Hydra.

This is an incredible place.

The shops, the houses, the restaurants,

one on top of each other, in this incredible jungle of life.

It's vibrant, it's healthy.

There are no cars.

Well, actually, there's only one car.

And that car is a truck.

It's the trash truck.

It belongs to the mayor.

Everything else is by foot or by hoof.

If you need to carry something heavy, don't worry.

There are a bunch of donkeys to help

carry your construction supplies wherever you need to go.

It takes a pedestrian perspective.

Everything about the city is measured to a person.

The width of a street, the height of a house,

all of it has a relationship

to a person rather than to a car.

It's almost an impossibility, except it's a fact, it works.

Because it can function in a way

that isn't just like a machine.

It's about a person, about social relations,

about communities.

Building materials can be dug

up from the stone at your feet.

Food is grown across the street.

The power is generated by windmills on the horizon.

This is how it's always been.

So what is the future of cities?

I think a really good place to look is to cities

from the past that have stayed true to their past.

Looking at all these cities, maybe the rules of a future

city could boil down to three simple rules.

Number one, at the scale of the city, make sure that half

the land is available for parks and not built on.

Number two, make sure that half the width of every street

is available for people and trees and not cars.

And number three, make sure that every building you build

gives back some proportion of the resources it consumes,

water, energy, even food.

If you follow these rules,

your future city is going to be sustainable.

We've talked about some incredible cities,

and they're all worth visiting.

But when you visit, look carefully,

understand what can lead to sustainability.

Travel is a way of learning, and what you learn,

please bring back to your city.