Q+A on the future of our cities
Marta González, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and of city and regional planning, studies the intersections between people within social networks and the built and natural environments. Her research uses big data to understand behavior in such areas as transportation, energy and disease proliferation. We spoke with her about how the pandemic and climate change are affecting urban areas.
What’s the future of urban environments?
Short term, one of the biggest challenges for urban planning is likely to come from changes in the way we move around. Until COVID-19 is eradicated, people will be cautious of close proximity. They’ll continue to avoid taking public transportation by walking, cycling or driving their own cars. What the new long-term normal will look like is still highly speculative. We could see more walkable cities, more working remotely from home, a decline in international travel and a move to localize manufacturing and healthcare. Alternatively, we could see more sprawl as people migrate from big cities to small towns, which could mean an increase in car travel and a decline in public transport.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing our cities, and how are we using technology to address them?
Continuous population growth creates a disparate quality of life and availability of services in urban populations, adversely impacting our natural and social environments. Unaffordable housing, acute pollution, power blackouts and congested travel are some of the current key challenges. In my research, I’m investigating how to promote and prepare for the
adoption of engineered technologies — such as electric cars, photovoltaics, house sensors and smart phones — while remaining vigilant of the public good. Urban solutions are often a compromise between information systems and understanding human behavior. Challenges such as housing, mobility and energy have come with negative consequences like air pollution, congestion and sprawling.
What are some examples of projects that are finding positive solutions to these problems?
In Bogotá, Colombia, we used mobile phones and data from a local fitness app to learn that there are 4.1 million short- to medium-length trips made across the city every day that could be done by bicycle instead of by car. In response, the city built nearly 50 miles of temporary bike lanes to reduce crowding on public transport and help prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as to improve air quality. In another project, we used optimization, data and modeling to pinpoint underserved neighborhoods in six cities. We found that accessibility to public facilities could be improved by as much as 50% if they were more optimally distributed. Such problems as the pandemic and climate change can actually be forces for improving the quality of life in our urban areas.
At the intersection of cities and climate change, what is our greatest obstacle?
To mitigate the current trends of our global
environmental footprint, we need to better understand the sources of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and develop more science-based policies. There are many data sources that we can use to model everyday human activities, but there’s a disconnect between “ubiquitous computing” and the best practices proposed by those studying environmental sciences, urban planning and public policy. Until we improve that connection, we won’t be fully able to solve the GHG problem.
What makes you optimistic about the future of cities?
Paris is exploring a new model for urban planning called “the 15-minute city,” in which everything a resident needs can be found within 15 minutes of their home by foot or bike. We know that people are happier living in a village environment, and there are many European cities following this model. We’ve also learned from the pandemic that it’s possible to dramatically reduce our miles traveled, particularly for work. Once the lockdown is over, we don’t have to go back to peak-hour commute traffic. We now know that we can be more creative with our schedules and work environments. Finally, there’s a global move toward making all government and commercial vehicles electric. China, France and Germany are leading the way on this effort, and it makes me very optimistic for the future.