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Building Balanced cities
photo by Daniela micali

One familiar balancing act that has shaped communities since humans started forming them, is the act of finding the right balance between individual freedom and what is best for the community as a whole. Back when surviving from day to day was a challenge, there was very little room for individual freedom if it in any way – real or imagined – could threaten the survival of the group. The punishment for community members putting their own needs over those of the group was chastisement, exclusion, or even death. Such transgressions were put into commandments – ‘Thou shalt not kill’, etc. – and their punishment into law. Later, when  mere  survival  wasn’t  a constant  challenge, more leeway was given to individual freedom, though some classes experienced more freedom than others. The nobility and later the merchant elite gained almost more freedom than they knew what to do with, while the peasant class had very little freedom and slaves had none at all.  All  people may be created equal, but they haven’t always been treated as such.

In modern Western societies, individual freedom is prized very highly and to a large extent built into law: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom to follow your conscience, political freedom, sexual freedom, and so on. Yet even today, individual freedom often clashes with what is best for the community. I may feel that it is my personal right to play Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries at max volume in the middle of the night with my windows open, but my local community might not think it is the best for them. Everyone living in a big city may want the freedom to drive their cars directly from home to work every morning, but if everybody expressed that freedom, the result would be massive congestion and serious pollution, to the detriment of the community at large.

I will argue that the closer people live together, if the community is to work, the more the balance must shift away from individual freedom to what is best for the community as a whole – whether the community is a large household or a large city. If I live alone in the countryside far from any neighbours, nobody will mind me playing Wagner all night (except maybe the wildlife and farm animals, but obviously, they don’t get a vote). Likewise, it would not be a problem if I drove my car every morning as long as I stayed in the countryside.

The right balance may be difficult to achieve since a person’s personal needs at one time may work against their personal needs at another time. I may want to live in the city because of the busy street life and many open-air music events – but I shouldn’t make any noise in my street or backyard! Others may say or think, “Move over one street, please, and annoy the people living there instead. I might even come and join you; it sounds like fun”. Similarly, some community needs may work against other community needs as well.

At any rate, as cities grow larger, city planners will find it increasingly difficult to strike the right balance that makes the community run smoothly and still a place where people want to live. If it is necessary to take away some personal freedom, you need to make sure that the citizens don’t feel the loss. If people can’t drive their cars to work every morning, make community-friendly alternatives like bicycling or public transport just as smooth and comfortable – or even more so. If people can’t play loud music at home, make sure there are enough places to go to hear loud music of any sort – but perhaps not in the streets where people live, or sound-proof all apartments and provide air conditioning so people don’t have to open their windows to get fresh air. Architecture with sound- reducing surfaces or baffles can limit the spread of noise and perhaps even turn it into energy.

“Building any sort of community, especially a large city, is basically a balancing act.”

Technology can be a very valuable tool to achieve this balance. Smart city technology can, for instance, make public transport run more smoothly and give citizens the information they need in order to go where they want to go when they want to go there. In the future, public transport may not run on fixed routes and by fixed schedules; instead, routes and schedules may be fluidly arranged in real time by artificial intelligence to accommodate the needs of the most people the best way possible. For example, a train waits a minute longer to allow passengers from a bus to catch it or sending a driverless car to transport somebody if no communal means of transport can be rerouted without bothering too many people. Traffic lights can also be programmed, for example to favour bicycles over cars, especially when it rains and people might otherwise choose to go by car instead of by bike. Maybe more can be persuaded to work more from home thus reducing traffic if city planners ensure city-wide high-quality wireless internet.

However, in a modern city, it is not enough to balance the needs of the individual and the needs of the community. Increasingly, there is a third need that must be addressed: the need of the environment.

With increasing climate change, challenged biodiversity, and reduced public acceptance of pollution, environmental needs are certain to play a far greater role in city planning in the future, even if it means the loss of some individual freedom and some smoothness of city life. Large cities are generally not known as oases of plant and animal life, but if we are to handle this century’s environmental challenges while also accommodating three billion more people in the world, mainly in ever-bigger cities, environmental needs must become a higher priority in city planning. Fortunately, environmental needs need not go against either individual needs or community needs.

Stress has become the major cause for long-term sickness in modern society, and more so in cities than in rural areas. Noise, rapid pace of life, and lack of nature are major contributors to this. Countless studies have shown that the presence of trees and wild animals reduce stress levels, so if cities create more green spaces that aren’t too heavily managed, allowing room for greater biodiversity, both citizens and the environment will benefit. Moving more traffic and parking spaces underground will provide the space for greenery as well as reduce surface noise and pollution, maybe even reclaiming city streets for people rather than vehicles. More green spaces will also make cities more resilient against climate change since soil and greenery can absorb a lot of water, reducing stress on sewers. Excess rainwater can be channeled into artificial lakes, and this water can be used to irrigate the city’s green spaces in dry periods, saving drinking water.

Technology can also play a major part in addressing environmental needs. Newer examples include replacing street lighting with trees genetically modified to glow in the dark, and plants modified to absorb more CO2 and store it in biomass and soil which will improve soil quality immediately, make plants grow faster, and reduce global warming. Houseplants can also be modified to remove airborne toxins in indoor settings, improving physical as well as mental health. Solar-powered robots can gently care for green spaces while also keeping an eye out for garbage throwers and other criminals, even enforcing social distancing in the case of epidemics.

With the above in mind, we can model balanced modern city planning with three arrows pointing out from a common centre, representing how well urban development caters to individual, community, and environmental needs. The greater the area of the triangle formed by the arrow heads, the better the overall, balanced improvement of the development. If any of the three needs is neglected, the area becomes very small, indicating that any improvement for this need could greatly increase the overall improvement. Exactly how to quantify how well needs are met is an exercise I will leave up to the readers.