An essential societal development started taking place thousands of years ago when our ancestors decided to join other successful settlements. Contemporary motivations for moving into cities are often the same: humans are always looking for a higher standard of living. When the Old Stone Age came to an end, humans in the Neolithic Era, which also called the New Stone Age, rapidly adopted the development of farming settlements and stone tools allowing our prehistoric ancestors to expand upon their early understanding of urbanization. The lengthy nature of the Stone Age requires a distinction between the different periods of that era, in order to illustrate the development of human civilization. To put that into perspective, the figures marking the beginning of the Old Stone Age range between 2.6 to 3.4 million years, while the Neolithic Era is thought to have begun around 12,000 years ago and is known to have ended during 2000-3500 BCE, depending on which region of the world is being studied.
During the Neolithic Era, villages and settlements were becoming more permanent than before, making most of the people of that era what is now known as settlers. Settlements all over the world in what are modern-day Greece, India or Iraq, are evidence that this early process of urbanisation paved the way for our relatively gargantuan cities, which have not yet reached their full potential.
So, what has changed?
A notable trend that is easily identified is that most settlements were built on river valleys. With food, transportation, and navigation being an integral part of daily life, it would have been incredibly difficult to settle anywhere else. The first four river valley settlements were on the familiar Nile, Euphrates, Indus, and Yellow River Valley regions of Afro-Eurasia. It is not surprising, therefore, to see some of the largest and busiest cities of both the modern and ancient world are situated along these river valleys.
Consequently, contemporary urban-planning involves variables that do not change. However, as we evolve and continue to use up the resources available to us on Earth, more factors begin to arise, such as environmental sustainability. When planning a city, ensuring that all factors are considered is essential in determining the size, purpose, and efficiency of the project. An urban planner and architect that has included environmental sustainability in his thought process from an early stage is Jaime Lerner.
In 1971, he was elected to become the mayor of Curitiba in Brazil. During his three terms he executed the Curitiba Master Plan, which was condemned twenty years earlier by his predecessors for being too expensive. The capital of the Parana province in Brazil became a model city for sustainable urban development almost 40 years before many countries and governments even attempted it. Some of the city’s features include an intricate and locally popular public transport system that uses different types of buses and is called the Rede Integrada De Transporte. Curitiba also boasts over 400 square kilometers of green spaces and public parks, as well as around 240 kilometers of cycle lanes. Understandably, Curitiba has received global attention and recognition for their early efforts to introduce sustainable urban development. Most of the world’s biggest cities are already undergoing plans to reduce harmful emissions and encourage environmentally sustainable means of transportation.
A glimpse into the future
Sadiq Khan, the current Mayor of London, introduced his plans in 2017 to make London a zero-emissions zone by 2050, and his plans were both widely supported and satirized. For example, President of the United States Donald Trump has repeatedly voiced his concerns about the Mayor’s lack of focus on crime, which is one of the many common issues that London still faces. Notwithstanding the infamy associated with Mr. Khan’s policies, some of the goals set by the ambitious Mayor have already begun to materialise.
Zero-emission London taxis are now possible after the flourishing Chinese car manufacturer Geely acquired London Taxis International, a firm based in Coventry for a mere figure of £11.4 million. Afterwards, the firm’s name was altered to London Electric Vehicle Company, followed by the launch of the new TX model, which has a production site that cost Geely £250 million according to the LEVC website. The LEVC TX meets the standards of the London Environment Strategy, being a car that can drive for 30 miles consecutively without producing any emissions. To put that into perspective, the older London hackney carriage (TX4) produces 209 g/km and it has obtained Euro Standard E5 for air quality, meaning that it is following an outdated standard that was introduced in 2011. The LEVC TX has also undergone extensive engineering in order to maintain the look of the world renowned hackney carriage.
Although the shift to a more environmentally friendly hackney carriage has been successful, there are still ways to go in regards to the charging points that fuel the desired electric cars. As the pathway to zero emission road transport suggests (see above), there is a current goal to install 2000 electric charging stations by 2020. The Transport For London (TFL) have stated on their website that there are currently 200 charging points around London, but they aim to increase that figure to 300 by the end of 2020. Another service that the London Councils website provides is that residents can suggest an electric supercharger to be installed near the location of their residence, and if the demand is high, they will install one. The website also clearly states that there can be monetary and practical restrictions that limit their ability to install charging stations in some areas. In other areas, I have personally encountered contemporary and practical charging stations, like the one below. As the images entail, it is a street light that has a charging port inside it and is accessible next to the blue light. This is evidence of creative thinking that went into the sustainable planning that requires the development of urban infrastructure that already exists. The challenges associated with such developments are often considerable, and given the pandemic that we are facing today, these challenges only seem to increase.
What could be next then?
After the successive declarations of a climate change emergency by the Scottish Parliament, The National Welsh Assembly, and the UK Parliament between the 28th of April and the 1st of May 2019, it is now clear that sustainable urban development is no longer a choice. With infrastructure networks like roads and gasoline pipage running across most cities, governments are now faced with the challenge of urban resurgence. This is the general heading for any initiatives that plan on improving the economic, social, and environmental structure of cities. An example of urban resurgence is pedestrianization, which is the removal of vehicles from designated areas and strictly limiting access to pedestrians.
During the COVID-19 crisis, pedestrianization was one of the leading measures introduced by the Mayor of London in order to ensure that transport within the city was not severely interrupted. This measure is popular with environmentalists who have identified the disadvantages associated with high congestion zones. The current deputy Prime Minister of Sweden and a former Member of the European Commission responsible for Environment Margot Wallström identified the benefits of pedestrianisation early on in 2004. During her time with the European Commission, the previous Directorate-general for Environment raised concerns about the increasing burden motor vehicles lay upon cities.
In her report; “Reclaiming city streets for People: Chaos or quality of life?” Wallström has even suggested methods for European countries to use if they chose to make walking a primary means of transport. The report suggests solutions using real time case studies in cities such as Copenhagen, which at the time of the report were already introducing different solutions to the problem at hand. For example, bus and cycle lanes were now introduced limiting the amount of lanes leading into the city center, the number of parking spaces was limited and made more expensive, there were also plans to develop suburban transportation systems such as the metro. Since 1995, Copenhagen has been successful in reducing carbon emissions by 50%, and is now considered one of the greenest cities in the world. Throughout the same report, there was emphasis that the success of any new plans for sustainable urban resurgence depended on the gradual implementation of the measures included. This has proven to be correct over the years.
Another interesting opinion on the matter of sustainable urban development is that of Professor Michael Neuman, a Professor of Sustainable Urbanism at the University of Westminster in London. In one of his commentaries; “The long emergence of the infrastructure emergency”, Professor Neuman finalizes with:
Large-scale, centralised systems are slowly giving way to distributed, decentralised and smaller scale networks. In the future, these latter configurations may prove to be more adaptable to the fluid and emergent configurations of city regions and necessary for both sustainability and cost reasons.
This in part sheds light on the aforementioned method of charging electric vehicles. What we are currently experiencing is a shift from the conventional petrol stations, which can be described as ‘large-scale centralised systems’ to strategically placed EV charging stations that can be described as a ‘distributed, decentralized, and smaller scale’ operation. In regards to cities, it would be difficult to properly imagine any more emergence in the near future. However, this does not mean that we are not heading towards a real change in the means and methods of transport. With automakers rushing to introduce their new hybrid or fully electric vehicles, it would be hard for urban planners to not follow suit. While our cities transform to mitigate the effects of climate change, we will slowly have to adapt to this change and embrace it.