A century ago London was the only super-city in the world. At that time, just 9 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. By 1950, the percentage of global urbanites had climbed to 27, with the balance living in rural areas, often far removed from any city. The year 2000 marked the beginning of a new global paradigm – a truly urban-centric world, when for the first time in human history, more than 50 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. And the trend continues; worldwide, cities gain a million people a week. We are witnessing the greatest human migration in history – from rural locales into cities.

There are economic, social and cultural benefits associated with the movement to an urban world. For individuals and families, and perhaps especially for women, the education, employment and empowerment opportunities are significantly greater. For the collective, the economic might of cities is breathtaking. The McKinsey Global Institute reports that just 100 cities generated $21 trillion in GDP in 2007 – 38 percent of the global total. Alongside these benefits are challenges that have become all too familiar to those who track the livability or sustainability of cities: infrastructure and operating deficits, increased outward city expansion (placing more emphasis on expensive road and sewer infrastructure), and increased dependence on the car for the movement of people, goods and services. These problems, unchecked, will undermine the potential of cities – and we all know it.

The gap between what a city is today, and what that city could become tomorrow should be the defining strategic issue for every city on Earth. It should be a point of reference and departure – the place from which we can consciously, deliberately choose to do things differently than before, better than before. Two key questions that might help chart a new future for the places we live are:

  • What is our dream for our city?
  • Do those of us fortunate enough to be able to influence the city’s journey through time see a future for ourselves here?

We are all the architects, large and small, of our city’s future. What is it that we want to build and be a part of? What is it that we will be proud to say happened on our watch and fundamentally shifted the trajectory of our city toward greater livability and sustainability, toward accommodation and celebration rather than assimilation, toward excellence, writ large?

I passionately believe that all of us with an interest in truly sustainable cities must leave incrementalism aside and get to work on making the urban environment one that is innovative, green and even sexy – so much so that people will want to come and experience it for a lifetime. This is not the usual stuff of urban planning, at least not yet, but it will be – if not in our own city, than somewhere else. Somewhere we will look at longingly 50 years from now. Somewhere that dared to dream and that dared to set audacious goals for housing. mobility, clean air and water, energy, food supply and so on. Somewhere that tapped deeply into the possibilities of resilience.

In the face of the challenges bearing down on cities across the globe, challenges exacerbated by climate change, that most eloquent of urban commentators, James Kunstler, has asked if we should continue to invest in what he sees as a futureless life – “the whole smoking, creaking, hopeless, futureless machine of suburban sprawl” or whether it is time to start behaving differently? This is the question; the one that matters, the one without an easy answer, but the one that we know in our bones demands our attention. It is the question that requires us to dig deep and overcome the poverty of imagination that would otherwise prevent us from reinventing or resetting the industrial age economy. It is the question that cries out for unexpected collaboration and deep conversation; that places a premium on the ability to see systems, collaborate across boundaries, and move easily from problem-solving to creating. It is the question that reminds us that saving your city is not a spectator sport – the bell has rung and we need to answer it; we need to lead. And leading has nothing to do with position or formal authority, but rather, the capacity of individuals and human communities to shape futures that people truly desire.

We need to stop asking if we are doing the best we can within the rules of the game, and get busy on busting through to a wholly new game – a game that creates the future, the resilience, the prosperity, and the sense of “wow” we all want in the cities and places we call home. The future is not some distant place we are going to. The future is now.

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