Global Challenges to the 21st Century City: Design and the Promise of Sustainability

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Course Information
Urban Studies
Environmental Studies
Terms offered: 
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Three momentous changes, occurring only within the last decade, are having a lasting effect on our planet: 1. More people now live in cities than in the countryside, an unprecedented occasion in human history; 2. There is now a consensus that human activity is a powerful, adverse contributor to climate change; 3. A new revolution is underway—replacing the previous model created by the Industrial Revolution—that is based on a search for alternative, renewable energy generation and sustainable living. The intention of this course is to research the myriad consequences of these radical changes to the city, and explore how architectural and urban design is adapting to address these changes.

The course will investigate a series of interrelated themes of fundamental importance to the health of cities: political will and political failure in the determination of urban policy; the role of the automobile in the propagation of suburban sprawl; demographic challenges (shrinking versus expanding cities); the enduring influence of specific modern urban movements (Garden City, modernism, postmodernism, “Critical Reconstruction,” “New Urbanism”); contrasting patterns of racism, poverty, and immigration; the emergence of a "planet of slums;" security in an age of war, chronic criminality, and terrorism; the threat of disease and epidemics. Global warming and environmental degradation will be a central concern. The accelerated consumption of oil and energy, the unregulated creation and dispersion of pollution, the alarming increase of CO2 emissions, and the consequent alterations to the earth's climatic equilibrium are no longer phenomena that can be ignored by architects and urban planners.

Attention will be devoted to the advent of the "Mega-city" (those now hosting populations of more than 10 million: Shanghai, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Lagos, etc.) and the "Instant City" (those constructed in just a few years on previously unsettled land: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, new cities in China). These two urban types, which demonstrate explosive growth, tell us a great deal about the concerns facing planners today and the limits of sustainable urbanism. Other cities, mainly in the developed world, demonstrate the opposite tendency, because they are shrinking (Detroit, Leipzig, Manchester, etc.). A handful of these cities will be examined in the course as case studies, particularly as sites on which new ideas in sustainable design are being implemented (or not).

The main urban case study, however, will be the city of Berlin and its surroundings, for it is here that a rich variety of trendsetting German projects of sustainable design can be experienced firsthand. These building projects offer exciting solutions for the use of recycled energy, efficient lighting, natural materials, converted infrastructure, and ecological/political coordination, and we will visit several during scheduled field trips. The resulting insights into strategies for creating livable, socially responsible urban environments will be valuable both to students of architecture and those outside the discipline. For indeed, cities have always reflected the combined efforts of human civilization and will continue to require interdisciplinary teamwork to survive and flourish.