As soon as our species abandoned the daily grind of Stone Age feast-or-famine, we went straight to town. Çatalhöyük, Eridu and Ur were the London, Mumbai and Tokyo, respectively, before 5000 BCE. Çatalhöyük's maze of dwellings are now nothing more than archeological digs. But some things have remained steadfast through the course of millennia. The city then and now is a place to go to break out of old molds and find opportunities. More than half the world population now lives in cities, many migrating to urban centers from rural hinterlands, a trend that shows no sign of abating. That overpowering demographic means the fate of cities will determine the fate of the planet.
Scientific American asked opinion leaders from government, academia and the social network of our readers to answer a simple question:
What is one innovation (technological or otherwise) that would make any city a substantially more livable place?
A selection of the most inspiring answers are printed in the magazine's September issue. Additional impressive replies, edited for brevity and clarity, also appear below.
Within cities, there should be clusters of tall buildings, designed to leave most of the ground free to be re-naturalized or left in its natural state, providing an urban park with easy access to the building dwellers. Each building or building cluster would have basic services such as commerce, administrative offices, sports facilities and such. The high- density model would greatly simplify transportation and utility networks, while at the same time providing easy access to the natural world, which would be literally an elevator ride away.
Vítor Pereira, Porto, Portugal
Bioreactors in the Walls
We should place sealed containers of algae-based, photo-bioreactors into the sides of buildings to produce biofuels and sequester carbon; as the algae grows it sucks up CO2 from the surrounding air which can then be stored.
Violeta Roxin, Agence de Developpement et d'Urbanisme, Pays de Montbéliard, France
Brain Training for Buildings
The single most important technological innovation that can make cities in industrial countries livable would be development of affordable "smart building" retrofits—a smart building would monitor the quality of indoor air, mechanical and electrical systems, and self-diagnose any faults. For example, it would self-adjust its indoor environment in anticipation of outdoor weather conditions, and warn the occupants of mold problems. Currently, almost all buildings are only reactive, and a large fraction operate with unrecognized faults. With an innovation of affordable retrofits to make existing buildings smart, consumers can save 20 to 30 percent annually on their electricity bills, as well as lead healthier lives since we spend most of our time indoors.
Ashok Gadgil, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
The Walkable Metropolis
I'm excited by the prospect of new technologies improving our future lives, but I'm still waiting for old technologies to improve my current life. I've never lived in an American city where I can walk to shops and to a pleasant cafe, nor one with a reliable or affordable public transit system. In fact, I'm searching for ways to move to such a city as soon as possible because I loved the lifestyle in my years abroad. Even striving to live close to the places I frequent, they are never found near each other, and none are accessible by anything but a parking lot.
Michelle Bennett, Chattanooga, Tenn.
Socialized Health Clubs
Gymnasiums that are free, staffed and open seven days a week for all people, with special activities for men, women, children and families.
Brenda Piquette, Nainamo, British Columbia, Canada