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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. 

Related: Urbanist Feedback

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Urbanist Feedback

About a month ago, I handed over an article I had written, titled The Onus of an Urbanist to a colleague of mine. I was seeking feedback on the flow of the piece. "But what exactly is an urbanist?" the colleague asked after reviewing it. The focus of it centered on how urban-based individuals can address & combat climate change in cities by exploring scale and framing. Thinking it a given, the space provided to understand who an urbanist was though, remained brief. I considered his question for a few days and thought of a better way to answer it: by asking self-described urbanists for the definition. 

So I created a survey. Fully acknowledging that there exist urbanist denominations, the aim was for them - us -  to share thoughts on not only the definition of the identity, but also how it is molded through urban life, while discovering our common ground. After combing through a small sample of responses, I realized the mixture of interests and perspectives seem to truly enhance what each urbanist promotes: better solutions for urban problems. Appreciation of the benefits and beauty of urban living. The memorable moments they've experienced in a city. The issues their city is currently facing and what actions they are invested in to create positive outcomes. 

With this feedback, I hope that these urbanists can find ways to link with one another on issues, projects, initiatives and future ideas - and that more urbanists will join in. You can add your voice to the discussion, too - connect on social media, or take the survey.

Cheers, Urbanists. 

"All of Earth is a planned community these days, so I don't think of 'urbanist' as excluding farms, mountains, or oceans. An 'urbanist' is someone who acknowledges that our lives are all connected and that we must make respectful, shared decisions about how our space and resources are used on our block and on our planet. I'm an urbanist because I acknowledge this reality."
Erik Moe, Washington, District of Columbia

"An urbanist deeply feels the interconnectedness of struggles for justice, visions for a more equitable society, and a practice of collective liberation."
Martin Xavi Macias, Chicago, Illinois

"An urbanist is a proponent of healthy cities. I am an urbanist because I am invested in seeing myself contribute to a strong and resilient community."
Magdalena Kaluza, Minneapolis, Minnesota

"My definition is probably unique - my own urbanism is born equally out of a love for walkable, compact cities and a respect for nature. Sprawl has greatly harmed the ecosystems of Georgia. Concern over the loss of land & connectivity in the habitats of native plants and animals fuels my love for compact land use and livable density." 
Darin Givens, Atlanta, Georgia

"A civic activist. I am interested in the phenomena of people in a place. I am inspired and guided by these thoughts: 'True involvement comes when the community and the designers turn the process of planning and building a city into a work of art.' (Edmund N Bacon)"
Franc D'Ambrosio, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

"An urbanist lives in the city, embraces, reflects and participates in the city's culture, and is active in creating a better environment for others."
Jared Hanks, Minneapolis, Minnesota

"Being centrally located."
Marc Ingram, Minneapolis, Minnesota 

"Access to people and culture."
Erik Moe, Washington, District of Columbia

"I love that there are so many different cultures represented in my city. One can meet people from nearly every walk of life. It is also the biggest small town you'll ever live in!" 
Magdalena Kaluza, Minneapolis, Minnesota

""[Being able to do] anything I want, whenever I want. With family, friends, co-workers and /or strangers."
Franc D'Ambrosio, Victoria, British Columbia

"Living wages, the right to heal, leisure, good food; a healthy environment."  
Martin Xavi Macias, Chicago, Illinois

"Good people. Community."
Jared Hanks, Minneapolis, Minnesota

"Transportation options."
Marc Ingram, Minneapolis, Minnesota

"The availability of alternative transportation modes, abundant green spaces and lots of attractions/entertainment - preferably located in mixed-use developments."
Brionte McCorkle, Atlanta, Georgia

"Equal access, shared experience, shared responsibility."
Erik Moe, Washington, District of Columbia

"I worked to expand our Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority into Clayton County. This is the first expansion of the MARTA system since the 1970s, and will restore transit to Clayton County residents who lost access when C-Tran (the local county bus system) shut down in 2010. Essentially, I worked as part of a coalition that informed the residents of the opportunity on the table, actions they could take, and how to put direct pressure on the decision makers to get a referendum on the ballot. We successfully got it on the ballot in July 2014, and in November 2014 nearly 74% of the county voted in favor of joining MARTA. MARTA's expansion is a $1.5 billion dollar investment by Clayton County over the next 35 years; the largest investment in public transit that Georgia has seen in decades."
/ Brionte McCorkle, Atlanta, Georgia 

"In Durham, I've used placemaking events to bridge gaps between various cultures."
/ Wanona Satcher, Durham, North Carolina

"I work for a nonprofit that makes city gardening more accessible; I am on a community advisory committee to contribute to community engagement for a south service area master plan for the park board; I am a performance artist and am an active supporter of the arts."
/ Magdalena Kaluza, Minneapolis, Minnesota

"I try to improve my city by way of volunteer work of various kinds. Atlanta is a city full of untapped potential contrasted with inertia on the part of city leadership; realizing that potential requires vision and work from residents and business owners."
/ Darin Givens, Atlanta, Georgia 

"[By] reducing the dominance of automobile use (parking, traffic) by giving preference to pedestrian, [public] transit and cycling infrastructure in all projects, public initiatives and conversations with leaders and influencers."
Franc D'Ambrosio, Victoria, British Columbia

"South Downtown is a neighborhood that was fairly devastated by disinvestment and bad development decisions in the latter half of the 20th century. It has a small residential population of a few hundred people and their voices are barely "at the table" with city leaders when it comes to effecting positive change in the area. I'm participating in regular neighborhood meetings to try and boost the voices of people who live and work here."
Darin Givens, Atlanta, Georgia 

"Currently, I'm heavily focused on the issue of mental health. I'm reporting on disparities in service and police violence towards people with mental illness. I'm also trying to dig into what stigma is, where it comes from and how to eradicate it."
Martin Xavi Macias, Chicago, Illinois

"Transportation. I am working on expanding MARTA in Cobb & Gwinnett through similar process as I did with MARTA in Clayton."
Brionte McCorkle, Atlanta, Georgia

"I am invested in seeing more healing spaces for people. I have been supporting a new community healing center that opened, called the People's Movement Center and I have been meeting with healers. I am in an organizer training called SPEAC, run by Hope Community, and I am seeing that we are in desperate need of platforms for emotional sharing around trauma, especially in light of Black Lives Matter."
Magdalena Kaluza, Minneapolis, Minnesota