The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing cities the world over to transform the configuration of their public spaces and services to ensure the health and safety of their citizens. They will also be looking at ways to reclaim their economic and cultural vibrancy once the pandemic is under control. Many aim to take action while maintaining their commitments to adopting more ecologically sustainable practices.
These are the types of challenges that will inform research at Concordia’s newly established Next-Generation Cities Institute.
“Cities are great places. Because of their density, they can be the most efficient and sustainable form of human development,” says Ursula Eicker, who holds the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Smart, Sustainable and Resilient Communities and Cities at Concordia.
“They generate most of the world’s gross domestic product and are the locus of innovation and productivity. At the same time, they are responsible for two thirds of carbon emissions. If we don’t transform cities worldwide, we’re going to have serious problems.”
Eicker has spent the past year establishing the Next-Generation Cities Institute. She and Carmela Cucuzzella, Concordia University Research Chair in Integrated Design, Ecology and Sustainability for the Built Environment, are the institute’s co-directors.
“We’re incredibly excited about this new initiative,” says Concordia President Graham Carr. “Sustainability is an issue of global importance and Concordia is committed to addressing it. The Next-Generation Cities Institute will be essential to mobilizing research to further our goals.”
The institute combines over 200 researchers within 14 university research centres representing disciplines ranging from science and engineering to the humanities and arts.
“The cities institute brings together researchers from across the university who think about smart, sustainable and resilient cities,” says Cucuzzella.
It will provide a framework for the interdisciplinary collaboration uniquely required for next-generation city planning.
“There are so many researchers across the university already doing incredible work in this field,” she says.
“The institute is an opportunity to show Concordia’s strength in this area. But also, more importantly, it is a chance to bring these researchers together and allow them to contribute to larger projects that can have real impact.”
The importance and complexity of city planning
By 2050, it is expected that up to 75 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities, making their efficient design all the more important.
“We sometimes have a difficult time conceptualizing the scale of the challenges. To safely absorb the carbon dioxide emissions that we currently create, we would essentially need a whole second planet’s worth of vegetation,” Eicker says.
“We also sometimes don’t realize how multifaceted these challenges are. All of it matters. Where the energy comes from, how efficient transportation and buildings are. Many projects attempting to be eco-friendly only focus on one issue but forget the rest. We need cities as a whole to be designed with all these relevant factors in mind,” she adds.
“There are also important social factors. No matter how efficient and advanced a city is, if it is organized in such a way that no one can afford to live there, then we’re not any further ahead.”
Carmela Cucuzzella, Associate Professor, Design and Computation Arts
Open, flexible and horizontal
Because many of the factors affecting sustainable cities are interconnected, addressing the problems facing next-generation cities requires a unification of diverse research efforts.
“We think of the city as an ecosystem. It’s about the resilience of the city, but that also means the resilience of the community,” says Cucuzzella.
“A large part of my own work is about establishing community-academic dialogue to foster new collective knowledge. The underlying vision is one where design becomes a critical and creative platform for an inclusive and collective making of the city,” she says.
“As an institute, we want to build new knowledge about the integrated, sustainable design of our urban environments, passing from the technical, to the built, to the socio-cultural qualities of the city, and we want this knowledge to be shareable with other cities around the world.”
An open, flexible and horizontal structure
Eicker insists that anyone interested in making life better should be interested in this project. “We want to create extensive partnerships and an expansive network,” she says.
“We need a global view, and this is precisely what the institute is intended to offer. We’re operating with a very open structure and anyone whose work relates to cities can contribute.”
The Next-Generation Cities Institute’s open, flexible and horizontal structure helps support its transdisciplinary effort. The institute aims to set a standard for international research that addresses such global and far-reaching challenges.
Paula Wood-Adams, interim vice-president and research and graduate studies, says the institute will play a vital role in bringing researchers together to work towards common goals.
“Concordia’s successful bid for the CERC created a wonderful opportunity to launch the institute,” she notes. “University-wide collaboration is essential for developing the kinds of projects that will have a meaningful impact on the future of our urban communities.”
Now that the Next-Generation Cities Institute is taking form, Eicker says Concordia researchers want to reach out to partners in cities and communities to decide on first joint projects. “We are actively looking for partners to work on sustainable city transformation.”
Eicker says the institute project is ambitious, and the challenges it faces go far beyond the technical and scientific.
“It’s also about bringing everyone together. We have to establish mutual cooperation between, for example, developers and activists, between artists and engineers. To initiate our work, we have started writing a four-volume comprehensive digital encyclopedia on all aspects of next-gen cities,” she reports.
“We need people to be excited and able to work together. We have set up this whole structure to enable creative work in and with the city, involving citizens, decision-makers and industry in de-carbonization, greening and social inclusion projects.”