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The Onus of the Urbanist

We're urbanists for a reason. For us, it's easy to grasp a fact given by the UN that 54 percent of earth's population now live in cities. We can identify a sense of magnetism that these places wield upon us.

The spectrum of experiences we have in relationship to people we meet and spaces we frequent in cities, shape us and stay with us. Yet as urbanists, our relationship to nature - a connection vital to our well-being - is often physically disconnected by the design and function in many of our cities. The fracture in this relationship has for so long received neglect in these urbanized places and in terms of relevance, makes issues like climate change appear light-years away. 

A matter of scale

Like climate change, scale is not a simple concept to grasp. To gain a working knowledge of it though, helps us leverage it when attempting to wrap our heads around Anthropogenic disruption. An incredible 9 minute film about scale created in 1977 by the American designers and architects Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe, is an intense visualization of the concept. A zero is simply added to the starting point of a one meter frame of reference. The video frame zooms out of planet earth to the universe and other galaxies, and back again to earth, then down to a microscopic level of internal systems of the human body. The magnitudes of scale, or perspective, creates an impression of how simultaneously significant and seemingly insignificant we are in the expanse of the universe. Although some living systems and their operandi appear minor, Powers of Ten illustrates just how inaccurate that assessment is when we examine what's happening in our core. For greater context, take a moment to watch it

Climate change and cities

Back on earth where constant urbanization is taking place, globalization continues to shape existing cities and provide impetus for the creation of new ones (and informal ones). By 2017, the majority of the earth’s population will live in cities. Economically and socially, they are the places where production and consumption happens. As social beings, we gather, both inside of cities or outside of them. We look for opportunities to make exchanges - intellectually, economically, physically and culturally - and to connect in order to have our needs met. The connection between us and other humans remain key to our survival, so we cluster in these spaces that are distinctly known for problem-solving. That problem-solving arm extends to the area of climate change. 

The conclusive impact of urban life on the planet is staggering: collectively, the world’s cities contribute up to 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s in spite of the fact that cities cover only 2 percent of the earth’s total landmass, according to a 2011 UN Habitat reportAs more people use more resources in the same capacity in these places, experts suggest that developing countries will tap into 65 percent of earth’s energy resources by 2040Statistics now proving impossible to eschew, curbing that impact requires strategy. Now more than ever, urban landscapes depend on an influential segment of its denizens known as urbanists, to step in. 

The Urbanist

When we live in cities, our habitats are inherently human-made systems and environments. Since the era of industrialization, the built environment has worked sort of as a mathematical formula, an equation that shows the relationship between different variables: plug in towering condos and office buildings, streets and amenities first, and then insert people into it, much like an afterthought and at our expense and the planets'. But the role of cities and their function does not have to remain that narrow. Alongside the environmental perils urban living generates, there is the pristine opportunity to mitigate as urbanists.

The question then follows: why is the responsibility on the urbanist? To put it plainly, there’s a sense of ethicality attached to the onus that taps into our social core. The urbanist, traditionally considered to be an expert in city planning, is now more commonly thought of as a type of social-environment investor, an advocate of shifting the conversation and strategy of city planning to include better societal outcomes and more equity through creative interventions and support of useful urban connections. Unlike the fixed identity of a Millennial, the Baby boomer or the Gen X’er, an urbanist ranges in age and ethnicity and other physical, educational and socioeconomic demarcations. The common denominator is simply his or her geography. The urbanist is the public transit commuter and the vehicle driver and the bicyclist – all identities living in and giving to the urban environments they find themselves in, and working to improve them.

Framing the scale

When the magnitude of climate change is discussed, it often creates a gap in understanding how to physically address it in everyday urban life. But scaling it down can provide the initiative to power desired outcomes. A different frame can show new ways to address the derivatives of climate change, like air pollution, biogeographical and social disconnect through car-based planning, reduced accessibility to resources and depletion of resources in general, on a particular level of intensity. 

How would you use scale to frame air pollution, an obvious by-product of climate change? Would you scale back from eerie statistics about the premature deaths it causes around the globe and focus instead on the local relationship between cars and pedestrians in your city, or buildings and employee energy usage at major companies in your town? Or would you start at a scale of tracking your personal carbon footprint for a month, then frame it in the context of an informational community workshop you design? When the scope of the problem has been scaled down to meaningful chunks of information, framing climate change can be a creative process. Thinking back to Powers of Ten, the power of scale shows how diverse systems are interconnected and impact on the smallest scale is still impact. 

As urbanists, we ascribe to a variety of identities in our cities. Yet irrespective of the denomination, as urbanists we value the opportunities we gain and share in the urban realm. Our awareness of our shaky relationship with nature impresses upon us a responsibility to become invested in decreasing environmental degradation through observation of our immediate surroundings. Our proximity to the beauty of cities and their problematic spin-offs puts us in an ideal position to literally react to those problems in a proactive capacity - to really grasp the impetus for the onus. 

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