By Haydée Rodríguez, legal advisor, AIDA
We are witnessing the biggest wave of urbanization in history. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that five billion people will live in urban zones by 2030 (State of the World Population: 2007).This growth could bring opportunities to improve our lives and fight for environmental sustainability, or it could create more poverty and accelerate the destruction of natural resources.
When we talk about the environment it’s easy to imagine a lush greenlandscape or a sunny beach, birds singing and perhaps an animal running free in the forest. It is less likely to visualize a cityscape of asphalt, traffic and honking horns. But it is true that the urban environment also is an ecosystem.
Urban ecology: The natural order of cities
Urban ecology is a relatively new scientific discipline that seeks to understand how ecological processes function inside urban areas. Unlike other branches of ecology, it requires the collaboration of the social sciences and economics to understand the dominant species of this environment: the human being.
In the city, just like in other ecosystems, every aspect contributes toward its definition. The characteristics of urban habitats include traffic, air pollution, population density, movement patterns, the real estate market, infrastructure, transport and natural elements like the availability of clean water, topography and geographic location.
Everything surrounding our everyday life – the streets, pavements, parks, buildings, etc. – have been created by humans. The documentary Urbanized analyzes the design challenges in cities, the interaction between different elements and how the environment influences the population.
Watch Urbanized trailer. Source: YouTube
Beyond chaos: Building sustainable cities
Initiatives to promote sustainable cities are on the rise. In the United States, where approximately 250 million people live in urban areas, local governments have created a project called Star Communities - Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating Communities (STAR). Through the initiative, each municipality can evaluate the sustainability of their cities in areas ranging from infrastructure to equity and empowerment.
Cities can volunteer to join the project by using the methodology for measuring sustainability developed by a multidisciplinary group. To be considered sustainable, STAR requires cities to: 1) Think and take action as a collective system; 2) Be resilient, which is defined as the city’s ability to adapt, recover and evolve in a changing environment; 3) Promote innovation and creativity; 4) Measure the progress of the health and welfare of the people, the environment and the economy; 5) Use resources in a responsible and sustainable way; 6) Collaborate between cities and inpiduals; 7) Promote equity and persity; 8) Inspire leadership; and 9) Seek continual improvement.
There is no stopping the progress of growing cities. In Costa Rica, for example, there are ongoing projects like Enamórate de tu ciudad (Fall in love with your city), which aims to improve the quality of life of residents in San José, the capital. Strategies have been put in place to improve safety, promote forms of clean public transport such as bicycles, and hold activities that bring the community together to enjoy the urban environment.
City lights shine increasingly brighter across the world. Now is the time to think about what we want our cities to be like. Our urban ecosystem can be an important opportunity for social mobilization (a social process organized and based on dialog to improve our quality of life), education and the empowerment of the population. It can also help us reduce our impact on natural areas and on biopersity. We should seize this positive challenge and dare to see our cities with new eyes.