Cities Lite

Can we reinvent our urban spaces so that they have less of an impact on Earth?

It is deep night as I write this. Or early morning, if you like. From where I’m sitting in my home, in the hills of Berkeley, California, I can see the city lights of Oakland and San Francisco in the distance, shimmering gold and silver. They remind me of the many tales, real and imagined, where that first distant glimpse of lights on the horizon offers a weary traveler hope of safety. But I’m reminded, also, of how those same lights have muted the night sky, and how they are powered mostly by fossil fuels better left in the ground.

Moonset over the San Francisco Bay. City lights can mean safety, but they also run primarily on fossil fuels and blot out out the night sky. Photo by Daniel Parks.

Our cities and urban spaces are such contradictions. They are, as I write in “Another City Is Possible,” “sites of wealth and culture, discovery and innovation,” progress and opportunity, yet, at the same time, they are draining our planet of its resources, destroying Earth’s capacity to renew itself. As environmental activist Max Wilbert points out in “Can a City be Sustainable?” the first essay in this issue: “even the world’s most ‘livable cities’… are utterly unsustainable in global ecological terms.”

If that be the case with urban places, where 55 percent of us live now and where nearly 70 percent of humanity will be living by 2050, what is the way forward? Is it possible to reinvent cities so that they are not only livable and equitable, but also leave lighter footprints on the Earth? This extended, special issue is as much an attempt to raise such vexing questions as it is to find the answers.

In these pages, we explore a wide range of issues and solutions related to cities and their environmental impact. We look at how urban centers across the world are being reconfigured, one street, one neighborhood at a time, to put people in better relation with each other, and with nature. We explore ideas around affordable transit, retrofitted infrastructure, zero-waste initiatives, tree cover, the will of water, urban bioregions, and more.

We learned so much — or asked so much — that we couldn’t make room for it all. We’ll publish more stories online in the weeks ahead. We’ll look at urban housing, and the need to copy Paris over Manhattan — with compact low-rise buildings over skyscrapers, how coastal cities are using oyster-reefs and mangroves to protect their shorelines, the movement to grow tiny forests on marginal lands, and more. We’d love to hear from you. What questions do you have? What solutions have you seen?

Building resilient, regenerative cities at the scale and speed we need to avoid the worst impacts of climate and ecological chaos won’t be easy. And that’s putting it mildly. But as so many of the writers in this issue have mentioned, if we think strategically, build community, center equity, and above all, persist, we just may keep those city lights a welcome sight.

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I’m happy to announce that the Journal has a new associate editor, Brian Calvert. An award-winning journalist and former editor-in-chief of High Country News, Brian is based in Riverside, CA. We are excited to have Brian join our team and look forward to producing more powerful journalism together.

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