New book ‘Cities that Think Like Planets’ imagines urban regions resilient to change

New book ‘Cities that Think Like Planets’ imagines urban regions resilient to change

Wikimedia Commons and Gindelis

Marina Alberti is a professor in the Department of Urban Design and Planning, which is part of the University of Washington College of Built Environments. Alberti directs the college’s Urban Ecology Research Laboratory and the Graduate School’s interdisciplinary doctoral program in urban design and planning.

She answered some questions about her new book, “Cities that Think Like Planets: Complexity, Resilience, and Innovation in Hybrid Ecosystems,” which was published in July by University of Washington Press.

This book seems a summing-up of elements of your career so far — including your views on the powerful effect of humans on ecosystems — as well as the work of many others. How long was this book in the making and how did it come about?

M.A.: I have been curious, since my early days as a student, about the role of imagination in scientific thinking. I believe that scientific progress is achieved through the discipline of observing and listening — without judgment — to both what it is and what can be. The book begins by imagining the future.

The way we think about the future has significant implications for the choices we make in the present — the strategies we devise to address new emergent problems. Imagine New York City — or London or Beijing or Ho Chi Minh City, or Seattle. Our present decisions as citizens and as planners will depend on whether we envision a future that follows the current trajectory of development, characterized by continuing growth; or one that predicts crossed thresholds, tipping points, and irreversible regime shifts triggered by climate change; or whether we imagine that we will be able to adapt to climate change by investing in green energy and infrastructure.

And how would our decisions differ, if we could imagine our city able to reinvent itself by redefining its relationships with natural processes?

I suggest that by navigating through time, we can uncover our biases about what we know and challenge the too-often-implied notion that scientific discovery has reached its end or that we’ve exhausted our capacity to learn. I propose that we can learn from the future. And more importantly, we can learn by asking what it is that we are unable to imagine.

What do you mean by “navigating through time” in this context?

M.A.: You do not need to travel very far in time to uncover the bias that past observations can place on our predictions. Current climate variables are very well outside the historical variability. Humans are changing the environment outside the range of values and conditions that Earth’s ecosystems have experienced throughout their evolution. And our past experience can also limit our imagination. Imagine you were among the first Seattle dwellers. Could have you imagined the current trajectories of urban growth?

The emergence of a new urban science that aims to uncover universal rules of how cities work and the remarkable availability of real time data and new sensors are key to envisioning such transformation. But science and data answer questions we are able to formulate. To build sustainable, resilient cities requires that we both refine our predictions and expand our imagination. Expanding the imagination is what made Einstein envision gravitational waves one hundred years before they were detected.

Your notion of “thinking like a planet” builds on ecologist Aldo Leopold’s idea to expand the scale of land conservation by “thinking like a mountain.” How have you built on that, and what does it mean, briefly, for a city to “think like a planet”?

M.A.: I suggest that we need a new ethic: to “build cities that think like planets,” so that we might face the challenge of cities in the context of planetary change. For Aldo Leopold, “thinking like a mountain” meant expanding the spatial and temporal scales of land conservation by incorporating a mountain’s dynamics. I suggest that we need to build on Hirsch and Norton’s idea of “thinking like a planet” (“Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change: Human Virtues of the Future,” 2012, MIT Press) to expand the time and space dimensions of urban design and planning to the planetary scale.

Cities that think like planets are cities:

  • where humans are key players in nature’s game
  • where humans bio-cooperate with, not simply bio-mimic, natural processes
  • that operate on planetary spatial and time scales
  • that rely on “wise” citizens, not simply smart technologies

You depict a hypothetical city planner saying it’s helpful to imagine varied futures, even knowing none will come true: “As we prepare our city for every collectively imagined scenario, we shape ourselves into a resilient city able to withstand whatever our ultimate reality delivers.” What role might human creativity and ingenuity play in preparing cities to meet the future?

M.A.: Cities are where innovation has historically occurred. The key role that cities have played in the development of science and technology and in the generation of inventions and innovations — intellectual and material, cultural and political, institutional and organizational — has been well documented by scholars in a diversity of disciplines.

While rapid urbanization accelerates and expands human impacts on the global ecosystem, it is the close interactions of diverse peoples that make cities the epicenter of both social transformation and technological innovation. Yet innovation is tightly linked to the capacity of urbanizing regions to adapt and evolve in a changing environment. For human civilization to achieve its full potential, it is essential to place technological innovation and social transformation in the context of local and global environmental change.

“If we are to think like a planet, we must deal with scales and events that are far removed from the everyday human experience,” you write. This implies “expanding the scale of design and planning” from decades to centuries, and from a human scale to considering ecologies of whole regions. Do examples already exist of this type of long-term, unfettered planning?

M.A.: Throughout history, people in societies faced with the prospect of deforestation or other environmental changes have successfully engaged in long-term thinking. Consider, for example, the Tokugawa shoguns, Inca emperors, New Guinea highlanders and 16th-century German landowners or, more recently, the Chinese efforts at reforestation and their bans on logging of native forests.

Many European countries and the United States have dramatically reduced their air pollution while increasing their use of energy and their combustion of fossil fuels. Humans have the intellectual and moral capacity to do even more when they tune in to challenging problems and engage in solving them.

Several Northern European cities have adopted successful strategies to cut greenhouse gases, combining these strategies with innovative approaches that allow the cities to adapt to the inevitable consequences of climate change.

One example is the Copenhagen 2025 Climate Plan, which lays out a path for Copenhagen to become the world’s first carbon neutral city through efficient zero-carbon mobility and building. They’re building a subway that will place metro stations within 650 yards of 85 percent of the city’s residents. Nearly three-quarters of Copenhagen’s emissions reductions will be realized as people transition to less carbon-intensive ways to produce heat and electricity: biomass, wind, geothermal and solar. Copenhagen is also one of the first cities to adopt a climate adaptation plan that will reduce vulnerability to the extreme storms and rising seas expected over the next century.

The Netherlands, also, is exploring ways to allow people to live with the inevitable floods. Strategies include floating communities and adaptive beach protections that take advantage of natural processes. New York is setting an example for long-term planning too, by combining adaptation and transformation strategies into plans for building a resilient city.

What do you think cities that “think like planets” will look like?

M.A.: Although I have ventured to pose this question in the book, I do not attempt to provide an answer. In fact, no single individual can. The answer resides in the collective imagination and evolving behaviors of peoples of diverse cultures who inhabit the vast array of regions across the planet. Humanity has the capacity to think in the long term.

A city that thinks like a planet is not built on previously set design solutions or planning strategies. Nor can we assume that the best solution would work equally well across the world, regardless of place and time. Instead, such a city must be built on principles that expand its drawing board and on collaborative actions to include planetary processes and scales that integrate humanity into the evolution of Earth.

Such a view acknowledges the history of the planet in every element or building block of the urban fabric — from the skyscraper to the sidewalk, from a backyard to the central park, from residential side streets to mega-highways.

It is a view that is curious about understanding who we are and about taking advantage of novel patterns, processes and feedbacks that emerge from human and natural interactions.

It is a city grounded in the here and the now and simultaneously in the different temporal and spatial scales of human and natural processes that govern the Earth. A city that thinks like a planet is simultaneously resilient and ready to change.

For more information about “Cities that Think Like Planets,” contact Alberti at Follow her on Twitter at @ma003.

(Originally published by Peter Kelley and UW News.)