Every year, hundreds of people move from villages and small towns to urban areas, starry eyed and with heads full of dreams. In fact, over the years, big cities have come to represent hope and opportunity. But this romanticized notion, while true to some extent, simply glosses over a more sinister reality. Major urban areas around the world are slowly reaching their breaking point as more and more people move in, straining the city’s infrastructure.
Most major cities are decades, even centuries old. They were planned to provide for the population of the time, with infrastructure in place to support a slowly growing population. Unfortunately, the city planners of the era never considered that there would one day be seven billion people on this planet — most of them concentrated in big cities. Suddenly, that carefully planned infrastructure lost its ability to efficiently provide for its population. These cities were no longer self sustainable. Massive population growth put a strain on resources and pre-existing infrastructure, creating a host of issues such as:
- Massive energy consumption
- Water scarcity
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Urban overpopulation puts pressure on other resources, such as food, employment, and space. Cities that had exploded almost overnight woke up to find themselves choking. But humans are nothing if not resilient, so the residents of these cities saw these issues as an opportunity to adapt and innovate — constantly looking for simple, sustainable solutions. And some have even found them! Let’s take a look at the clever, creative, and just plain mind-blowing ways big cities around the world have tackled their infrastructure problems.
In a Jam
Barcelona, Spain and Hong Kong
Living in Bangalore, we know the pains of traffic congestion well — it is part and parcel of any rapidly growing city. While our city is yet to find a solution, others around the world have come close.
Barcelona, for example, found a smart solution to their traffic issues — taking advantage of their WiFi infrastructure. The Urban Lab facilitates a city-wide, dynamic traffic monitoring system that uses cameras and sensors to help commuters better manage their travel through text alerts. It also connects traffic lights, allowing the local control centre to increase or decrease the frequency of green lights according to traffic conditions.
Hong Kong, on the other hand, took a more low-tech route, choosing to pad out their public transportation system. They’ve introduced Public Light Busses (PLBs) onto their roads as a halfway point between personal vehicles and massive busses. These smaller vehicles service hard-to-reach areas, which are often centres of traffic congestion. They’re smaller, lighter, and more efficient, operating with greater frequency and providing non-stop service, allowing them to respond better to market demands.
I Want to Breathe Free
New Delhi, India and Liuzhou, China
Air pollution can be a huge problem in big cities, especially in those that are industry-heavy. New Delhi and Liuzhou both faced the issue of a choking population, which had them searching for a way to filter the air. While the overall solution may be the same, they have embraced two very different approaches that are both equally innovative and striking.
New Delhi’s air reached record levels of pollution in the last year, so the government decided to tackle the problem from the ground up — literally. The proposed Smog Project is an initiative that will help Delhi breathe free again by building giant air filtration towers. These towers will be located at strategic points throughout the city, and will be connected by bridges so as to not impede traffic — giving the city’s landscape a futuristic look.
If New Delhi takes inspiration from science fiction, Liuzhou models itself on a fairytale — the Chinese city will become the world’s first vertical forest. This radical idea was the brainchild of Italian architecture firm Stefano Boeri Architetti, who looked at a vertical garden and wondered what would happen if it covered an entire city. To turn this vision into a reality, every building in Liuzhou will be covered with plants that will help filter toxins and pollutants from the air to help the city breathe cleaner and greener.
Water, Water Everywhere
Mexico City, Mexico and Cape Town, South Africa
In many developing nations, urban areas outgrow their available resources at an extreme rate, and one of the most affected resources is water. While the urban water crisis is a global phenomenon, two cities that have been deeply affected are Mexico City and Cape Town.
Mexico City’s water has been trapped in a cycle of drought and deluge for decades. The city is also using its groundwater at twice the rate it can be replenished, causing the entire region to sink. The problem goes back centuries, when Spanish colonialists drained the lake bed to build what would become Mexico’s capital. But while geography may be part of the problem, in this case it could also offer the solution. By tracking water consumption and land development over the years, scientists and government officials found a dramatic decline in groundwater which fell in line with a period of 30 years of urban expansion. The culprit? Porous rock. This remnant of ancient volcanic activity is smothered by the paved streets of a portion of the city. Unclogging these pores will not only help drain the city during flash floods, but will also increase the groundwater store in the region.
In comparison, Cape Town’s massive movement towards conservation was fueled not by years of research, but sudden, gripping panic. The city was in such dire straits that it was predicted it would completely run out of water by early 2018. Luckily, ‘Day Zero’ has been pushed back thanks to the efforts of Cape Town’s citizens. Seeing their taps slowly run dry, they doubled down on sustainable options with help from new infrastructural solutions, such as rainwater harvesting setups and neighbourhood water trucks. The citizens themselves worked towards capturing, recycling, and reusing this water. Though this isn’t a permanent solution, it has given the city a stay of execution until one can be found.
Making a Change
Many of these cities had one thing in common — a wide-angle view of the situation. Having an idea of the big picture can help city officials find the best solution for their region — and it’s not always about building something new. The answer may instead lie in making a change to better work with the particular environment of the region, or designing a plan that can work within the restrictions of the existing infrastructure. These examples just go to show that the best way to rescue a floundering city is to take a step back before deciding the way forward.