When we think of cities, we tend to picture permanent, densely settled places with administratively defined boundaries in which economic, societal, political and cultural transactions occur endlessly. The size of these well-defined human settlements becomes apparent when we leave a city and end up crossing a spatial border (usually indicated by a street sign) indicating the end of a city. Based on this definition, cities take up 3% of the world’s surface (Global Rural Urban Mapping Project). Rather small, right?
Here’s the problem with this definition though. Even though only 3% of the world’s surface is considered urbanized, 72% of the global ice-free land surface is dedicated to supporting our species, and between a quarter and a third of the entire ‘net primary production’ of the planet is consumed by humans (Mark Lynas, 2019, CNN, accessed 26 April 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/). This goes to show that, even though cities are primarily considered as densely packed and concentrated administrative areas, the activities that are necessary to keep them in operation reach far beyond the thoroughly planned limits of the urbanists and city administrators. In fact, this disproportionate ratio of production-to-consumption-area is one of the many ambiguous attributes of a city that has led numerous of today’s urbanists and theorists to rethink the traditional, static limits of a city and to attribute to it a “fluid dimension” (Ricci, 2012).
When one equates this ratio with the 48% global surface area that is left untouched for healthy and thriving natural habitats (Bonnie Christian, 2019, Standard, accessed 26 April 2021, https://www.standard.co.uk/), we see a clear warning sign that something is not right. Never before have we paid such close attention to the impacts that our actions have on our cities and their surrounding territories. The way cities operate today simply costs too much on our environment and consequently the natural stability we need as a species to survive and thrive. It’s important to find new ways to decentralize this stress from our natural habitats and create new paradigms of production and consumption. Paradigms that do not rely on our cities’ surrounding environments as the main providers for all of their necessary resources to operate. Paradigms that rely on decentralized, collaborative, actionable and data-informed plans between cities for the exchange of ideas, resources, energy, information and people.
It’s therefore time to redefine the role of cities in our efforts to maintain the balance of the world’s natural processes. Can we take advantage of today’s endless connectivity to reach a collective and connected urbanism? Can cities reach circularity at a metropolitan scale?