Another hopeful note: Reframing the possibilities of cities

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A recent Ted Talks by Alex Steffen provides a great example of how we can generate new possibilities by reframing our approach to challenges. It is a short, provocative – and hopeful! – 10 minute talk about the possibilities of cities. And it made me wish I was 30 years younger to actively work on some of these ideas!

Steffen argues that we’ve made the climate change problem – a heavy topic indeed – even heavier by framing the issue as that of finding clean sources of energy that can replace the energy we’re currently generating from fossils fuels. This seems to be an overwhelming and unsolvable problem, leading us to feel a sense of despair. (The recent drama around the nuclear industry after the earthquake in Japan only contributes to this sense of despair about finding non-fossil fuel sources of energy.)

Steffen argues that we should shift our focus from the question of how to generate enough clean energy to a different question: how we can leverage the low energy potential of dense urban environments to create high quality living environments.

The key to his argument is an important data point that he illustrates in a compelling graph: The higher the density of cities, the lower the climate emissions per capita of its inhabitants.

The shift towards urban living is of course a well-known demographic trends. Steffen does not merely make the case for greater urban density. Rather, he argues that we should look at examples of how we can actively and creatively exploit and leverage the low energy potential of urban density.

Instead of giving us a vision of a low energy, downgraded picture of the future, he offers us a picture of cities “that are not only zero emissions, but have unlimited possibilities as well.” The key is to think differently, to ask different questions about the energy problem.

If you’re concerned about climate change, live in a city, or are just curious to see how changing the questions you ask about an issue might reveal new possibilities, then I highly recommend this 10 minute video!

Another city related note: The Ted Talk by Geoffrey West on “The surprising math of cities and corporations” offers another through-provoking look at cities. I watch this with my husband – a mathematician who loves to read the stories found in numbers. We both found this talk fascinating and hopeful!

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