Cities of tomorrow

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Perhaps everything that is wrong with the world can be summed up in one example. Social geologist Julien Rebotier, in his work “Risk management in Ecuador” (El Riesgo y su Gestión en Ecuador) includes a simple graph to show the dynamics of a society such as Quito’s when faced with natural disasters.

A disaster occurs and followed by an immediate overall reaction. Then, as is natural, institutions come to the fore to help cope with the problems and alleviate the damages caused. Only when the general public begins to calm down and put the event to the back of their minds, are a decent set of risk management dynamics put in place. However, instead of maintaining these dynamics for future unforeseen events, they slowly disperse, at a similar rate to the capacity of sensible reaction by the very people who most need the safeguards, to the point that they disappear altogether. It’s natural that the bulk of society forgets a tragic event and continues its everyday existence. It’s even necessary for calm to return. But the duty of a society is to create a buffer that prepares it for future surprises; a system that enables a society to apply lessons learned to its institutional and political framework so that we no longer improvise risk management from scratch. As Julien explains, “natural” disasters are really caused by humans: by what they do, and by what they do not do.

Humans are powerful. We started small; we created our homes, and out of the many homes we built, we suddenly sought to organize ourselves around a larger, deeply symbolic and practical concept, the urban center. Today, the city is a fabulous example of what humans are capable of… it is a compendium of its parts, a space that brings us together, a vision for the future. It is a great invention that only works if it is necessarily built upon balance: if its architecture is connected to its technology; if its resources are connected to its knowledge; if its art is connected to its science; if its creativity is part of the practical solutions it develops; if it is part of what surrounds it; and if it offers both itself and its environment long-term stability… then, the city thrives without major challenges, the highest creation of the human mind. It is not Da Vinci’s, or Einstein’s or Aristotle’s creation. It is the work of every citizen. The functional, sustainable city, the “resilient” city is the daughter of us all… Therein lies its genius.

But that city exists, perhaps in too many occasions, in a Utopian cloud and not where it should be: in our real world, in our day-to-day lives; today, in light of tomorrow. Dispossession, dehumanization, short-term thinking and indifference have sadly been the predominant actors of our contemporary cities, and their problems. Sudden shifts in circumstances within our societies have created, in many parts of the world, cities destined to become sources of unsustainable livelihoods for themselves, isolated and without answers to face the storm of their own growth. Shantytowns are a norm now: cities within cities that grow to over a million ‘souls’ living in extreme poverty, with insolvent housing placed on precarious sites prone to disaster: whole communities relegated to concrete jungles and insecurity. The statistics are compelling: half of humanity lives in the cities of the world, which together represent only 2% of our planet’s surface.

Our cities have to be shared by us all: policy makers, universities, the community, the public and private sectors. The city must bring us together.

– Dr. Jaime Calderón, Dean of the National Polytechnic School

A new city?

There is no reason for the city, both in concept and in practice, not to remain a source of inspiration, wellbeing and long-term prosperity that it was created to be, historically. It is curious that in our global world, we are ever-more cut off from our resources, from nature, from our own society, with its abysmal (and growing) inequality gaps. The city was created to unite us. An event like Habitat III focuses in precisely on promoting the discussion of these issues and their many disturbing consequences; on learning about what has worked and how to apply those positive experiences when tackling similar problems elsewhere; on incorporating practices that address poverty and improve the urban environment; and above all, on bringing urban participants together, whether they be ordinary citizens or scientists, architects, agronomists or educators. From their diverse vantage-points, the aim is that they can contribute to the creation of new policies focused on a system that does not crumble every time we forget that the world changes, that the unforeseen is part of reality and that our systems become outdated. We must establish a precedent that allows us, as a collective, to adapt to the surprises and shocks to the system that will inevitably appear, and cause imbalances in our societies. Our Earth will forever be a sea of uncertainties. We must build our arcs to sail forth together.

Quito may very well be surrounded by volcanoes, as a city it may very well seem “cursed by nature”… but such realities will certainly be a blessing in disguise when we learn to cohabit with the glory of living in such a magnetic and vibrant living space. Eighty-seven percent of the world’s cities are under the risk of volcanoes. But few of their inhabitants are aware of their circumstances or can attest to them. We, at present, coexist with five active volcanoes, erupting in the country. If we can understand the political mechanisms to institutionalize risk management against this threat, creating a chain of communication that involves public and private sectors, creative and cultural actors, authorities and scientists, to create a precedent for the future, then we have understood resilience. We will have reclaimed our humanity for our city and may become a reference for the world. It is possible. The question is how we rethink coexistence in this, our post-modern world…

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