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From towering skyscrapers covered in trees to zero carbon smart cities, there are so many ways to imagine what a sustainable city of the future might look like. But what does it really mean to be sustainable anyway? Today, we’re going to look at environmental planning and how it intersects with people and the communities they form.

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Modular floating communities, towering skyscrapers covered in trees, and zero carbon smart cities.

These are some examples of what I call climatopias, which are utopian urban designs that attempt to address climate change, and they’re the focus of my PhD research throughout 2022. They can take many different forms, but climatopias are the futuristic visions of architects and designers around the world who are seeking to create sustainable urban settlements in the face of mounting environmental threats.

Climate change is something many of us are dealing with everyday, and that can be both scary and motivating. But as we design for climate change, it’s important to think not just about infrastructure, but also about what really makes a city a city -- the people. So we have to ask ourselves -- what helps a city evolve and thrive, both today and in the future?

Or put another way, what makes a city sustainable? Urban spaces need strong communities to help guide and direct the various challenges that come from living in high density with other humans -- especially with the added pressures of climate change and how that vulnerability gets distributed unevenly. But those ideals are often difficult to materialize in real life.

Oftentimes the people who can make planning decisions don’t include everyone who might be impacted by the decision making process. Or sometimes, there isn’t funding to modify or retrofit landscapes designed for one purpose -- like the flow of cars -- with more accessible options like bike lanes. Planning for the future is no small task, but as geographers we have the spatial skills to take on the challenge.

I’m Alizé Carrère, and this is Crash Course Geography. Like many of the specialties we've talked about in this series, Environmental Planning is an interdisciplinary field involving urban planning, geography, economics, and even agriculture, which focuses on how we can build sustainable communities that are better places to live, work, and play. Environmental planning is part of sustainable development -- which can mean everything from using natural resources in a way that protects the environment to helping cities grow in ways that can be sustained for generations to come.

As environmental planners, this means we focus on creating designs that use natural resources responsibly. We work on how to promote economic opportunities and environmental justice which is when everyone is involved in environmental laws and policies. We also work on social equity, which is where everyone has just and fair access to things like housing and jobs that pay enough to cover basic needs.

Borrowing a phrase from business, this goal is the quadruple bottom line: positive results for people, planet, profits, and community. But sustainable development can be a contradiction -- what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the economy don’t always match up. So whenever we’re trying to sustain or conserve something, a key question to ask is: what are we really trying to conserve?

For instance, we might focus on conserving the environment and limiting our use of natural resources. So urban planners will use a host of models and planning tools to help create relationships within the city that preserve and use open space. Like zoning, or designating where different land uses can take place.

Residential zone areas of cities can be rezoned or re-designated to create walkable neighborhoods with mixed housing and shops, rather than just one or the other. This creates compact zones where people want to live, work, and play, which reduces the need for people to drive across the region. Zoning and other tools are often part of smart growth planning, which tries to control and direct the movement of sprawl, or places on the outskirts of cities like suburbs and edge cities expanding into open, undeveloped land.

In our planning we can also use ecological design, which is an effort to build buildings, and even whole cities, to mimic nature. And buildings that are designed like living machines, or that emphasize passive solar design elements that use the Sun for heating and cooling are just the beginning. Ecological design is a key place where physical and human geography mix, but as we’ve learned in previous episodes, cities encode a lot about our ways of life and cultures within the design and architecture of their buildings -- and we can conserve that, too.

But no matter what we’re trying to conserve, we’re going to create tension. For one, urban planning is about relationships, so it’s rarely a neutral act. One approach to sustainable neighborhoods includes new urbanism, which is like smart growth but usually just at the neighborhood scale.

It often creates areas people are drawn to, which can then cause gentrification. Gentrification is when the value of land and rent increase in lower income areas from a new influx of investment. This growth becomes problematic when people aren't treated equitably, as we learned when talking about redlining and urban renewal.

If cities don't plan ways to increase economic opportunities for lower-income residents, or protect low-income housing, people can be priced out of their neighborhood -- or city -- because they can no longer afford the rent. There's no one solution or easy answer to this problem, but we can at least start by staying focused on the people involved and the history of the area, keeping equity in mind. In cities we’ve also got large concentrations of people, and that allows for efficient access to services like health care, public transportation, and education.

And things like electricity or internet access are cheaper. Urban areas are also centers of diffusion and cultural exchange that can drive innovation and new economic frontiers and technological advances. But large concentrations of people also create pressure.

Partly because of the same economies of scale that make it efficient to offer services like education and renewable energy, there’s also a lot of waste, pollution and strain on water resources. And while there are more services in urban areas, they’re not distributed evenly, which can create uneven health outcomes. One strikingly visible example of this is the grey-green divide.

On the (usually) wealthier side, houses are comfortably nestled amongst shady, tree-lined streets. And on the other side of a single road, everything suddenly changes to shades of concrete and asphalt; grey roads, grey roofs, grey sidewalks. This has an effect on our mood, our health, and even the biodiversity of life around us.

And all this vegetation also helps to minimize the effects of the urban heat island, where all that asphalt, concrete, stone, and steel absorbs heat -- and prevents air pollution from dissipating. In fact, whether air pollution is common because of the physical geography of the city or because there are more heavy polluters like cars or factories, there are a lot more asthma cases, ear-nose-throat illnesses, and people with weaker immune systems in cities. This is particularly true in poorer areas of cities with substandard housing, where people have the fewest resources and little ability to access health care.

There are other problems too, like air pollution from factories and cars can mix with water in the atmosphere, creating acid rain. The effects of which can be felt hundreds of miles away from the cities where it formed. And there are water quality issues, like sewer overflows and dumping chemicals in urban waterways.

Most cities were built long before environmental justice was part of the urban planning discussion -- which according to the US environmental protection agency grew out of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and is the idea that every person is entitled to protection from environmental hazards, regardless of race, gender, age, class, or politics. And so creating sustainable cities is about planning for the future and reconciling the past. And as we work to make the built environment evolve with our own understandings of justice and environmental impact, there’s a tension between retrofits that reuse old materials and spaces and fresh development.

For instance, we have to decide what to do about beautiful old buildings built in areas with lots of earthquakes. Urban planners may work with structural engineers to determine what kind of retrofitting is necessary to make a building earthquake-proof -- or if the safest thing for everyone is to have the building come down. And reusing what’s there, like the work of French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, who have won awards for their work retrofitting buildings, can have enormous global impact.

The materials and construction industries are responsible for 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions in the early 2020s, which will be reduced dramatically if existing buildings and infrastructure can be reused. The push to reuse, rather than build fresh, also saves biodiversity outside cities and minimizes how many habitats get fragmented when urban sprawl is allowed to run amok. Much of this can be at risk when a greenfield development is chosen over a brownfield development, whether for housing, shops, or factories.

In a greenfield development, the project is a blank slate for the architects and builders. While brownfield development is done on top of land that has already been used, whether that land used to be a factory, car dealership, or even a parking lot! Retrofitting is just one tool we have as we think about effective ways to address climate change and atmospheric warming.

As people try to change their lifestyles, many are constrained by structural problems, like living in a place with no public transportation, or that are designed poorly for accessibility, walking, or biking. Planning with an eye towards sustainability, and working with what already has been built, offers a way to start addressing those larger retrofits we need as a society. And, if we’re going to shift to new technologies like electric cars, or retrofits like efficient windows and insulation, we have to also make space and be willing to help those who can’t afford the changes.

Who pays for retrofits or who pays the environmental costs for unsustainable designs are political. As a society, we often just accept that there will be some people who have to live with the economic or environmental consequences of the types of development decisions we make, and that can be heavily placed on vulnerable groups. So creating sustainable cities can’t just be a part of our future -- it also has to be part of our present.

And that means citizens like you or I can get involved. For example, a cooperative, or co-op, is a group of people who come together to collectively manage a resource, whether that’s housing or agricultural production. And in Barcelona, the La Borda co-op is building off a collaborative housing model used in Denmark, Germany, and Uruguay that provides non-speculative housing.

This means that people don't own the individual units they live in, but they also don't pay rent to another person or company–instead, they join a co-operative business as members. It's a little complicated, but what's important here is that it's a way of opting out of trying to always make a profit on land or housing. Individuals can't sell or even rent their space in the co-op, and this keeps prices low for everyone.

The complex was also built to be flexible in order to meet the needs of each of the residents. In fact, their building wasn’t completely finished before people moved in! This allows the co-op members to finish the building to suit the needs of the group, rather than needing to remodel later, so they save on the impact of construction.

And we see this type of co-op effort all over the world. From grocery stores in Detroit to housing in Greece, to sustainable agriculture in Kerala, India, groups of people are banding together to leverage their numbers and purchasing power to envision new ways to exchange goods and services that will allow for secure, healthy lives. But with a smaller footprint.

Planning our cities and neighborhoods -- including our communities in rural spaces! -- is a community effort. In many cities and regions, there are regular public planning meetings that people can attend to learn about how their leaders are designing for the future, and speak up for places and spaces planners might not be thinking about. As communities come together and define their neighborhood, they create the type of place they want their location -- and their future -- to be.

Which we’ll keep talking about next time in our final episode. Thanks for watching this episode of Crash Course Geography which is filmed at the Team Sandoval Pierce Studio and was made with the help of all these nice people. If you want to help keep Crash Course free for everyone, forever, you can join our community on Patreon.