Strength in Numbers: How Cities Are Championing a More Sustainable, Social, and Equitable Future

by Susie Wold

Here in the SC Upstate if you were to approach a person at random on the street and ask what words they associate with cities, you might get something along the lines of “dirty,” “dangerous,” “crowded,” or “impersonal.” In actuality, though, cities are on the forefront of sustainability. They prove to lower the carbon footprint and increase social equity of their residents, as increasing numbers lead among other things, to a greater sharing of resources and more rapid innovation. Today as people everywhere strive to create a more sustainable society in which to live, work, and play, cities across the globe are implementing creative solutions to foster healthy, sustainable communities. This doesn’t just pertain to huge metropolises like London or Hong Kong. To be sure, cities come in all shapes and sizes with their own sense of what community is. In the small city of Travelers Rest where I’m working as an intern this summer, the meaning of community is knowing the names of shop owners who greet you when you walk in the door. I am inspired daily when I learn of all of the unique and inventive solutions that cities are coming up with to tackle the challenges that face our common goal of sustainability. Here are some of my favorite examples that showcase the ways in which cities are ushering in a new, more sustainable way of life for communities across the globe (click on the title hyperlinks to learn more about each project).

Largo de São Francisco, São Paulo, Brazil

In 2013, São Paulo Urbanismo worked in tandem with Gehl, a Danish architecture firm, to develop pilot projects that would increase the livability of Brazil’s largest city. Through public meetings and workshops with community members, universities, and city agencies to establish a community vision, the team focused upon the largely unused downtown square, Largo de São Francisco, as a starting point. The square was originally cut in half by a four-lane highway that made the area unfriendly to those traveling by foot or bike, limiting thoroughfare across the square. Through the creation of bike lanes, crosswalks, seating, community space, and even a pop-up movie theater, this once deserted square turned into a communal hub. Vendors, performers, and people of all ages enjoying their day moved into the area, making a vibrant social scene from morning to night. While at peak hours, only 40 people were seen in the square before the project, now throughout the day, numbers remain above 100, rising to 150 people at peak hours (an overall increase in use by 237%).

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Once only suitable for cars, bikers and pedestrians can safely travel through the square.

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People enjoying a movie screening in the newly renovated square.

Alternative Transportation in Hood River, Oregon

As an avid hiker, I’m sometimes discouraged at the amount of driving I have to do to get to a trailhead. In the City of Hood River, Oregon, the municipal government has helped to “green” these outdoor excursions through the implementation of alternative transportation. Hood River has opened a 73-mile bike trail on the Historic Columbia River Highway that connects the cities of Hood River, Mosier, and The Dalles, as well as the many natural areas along the way. The Columbia Gorge Express shuttles people (and their bikes) to popular natural sites such as Rooster Rock State Park, Multnomah Falls, Cascade Locks, and Hood River. Because of its popularity with nearby Portland citizens as a weekend getaway, bike-friendly bus and train service are offered to help make these outdoor adventures much more sustainable.

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Bikers enjoy the new Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail

Cleaning Day in Freetown, Sierra Leone

In this coastal country of East Africa, President Julius Maada Bio has recently reinstated the tradition of National Cleaning Day, taking place every first Saturday of the month. In an interview on Cleaning Day, Vice President Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh stated, “This is one of the biggest social challenges we have in this country. As you can see, the infrastructure for cleaning over the years have totally collapsed, so we are encouraging citizens to come out to clean.” On this day, businesses close down, and vehicles are only allowed on the streets for emergency and cleaning-related use. People of all ages and abilities take to the streets to help clean up their cities and towns in a truly communal effort to improve the environmental and human health of their nation. Especially in the large capital of Freetown, excess trash poses a threat to health and safety problems, as well as the risk of flooding, mudslides, and polluted waterways during the rainy season. With a mixture of governmental advocation and grassroots mobilization, Sierra Leone is making great strides in the sustainability of Freetown and the greater nation.

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Before and after the first National Cleaning Day in Freetown: A gutter that acts as a canal during the rainy season is completely restored.

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The Leone Stars National Football Team on National Cleaning Day.

Community Street Quilt in Montclair, New Jersey

In 2013, citizens of Montclair launched an initiative to create a patchwork “quilt” of street murals throughout the town at busy intersections. Not only was the project cheap and easy to implement, but it brought community members together to turn the once mundane intersections into works of art that help grow a community identity. This project does not solely work for aesthetic purposes, though, as the colorful murals have helped to slow down cars and increase biker and pedestrian safety at intersections. Over time as the murals fade, the street quilt offers yet another opportunity to increase community, as citizens once again come together to help restore the fading murals.Screen Shot 2018-06-15 at 2.14.18 PM.png

The community street quilt offers an opportunity to increase safety, communal identity, and grassroots mobilization in Montclair.

These four examples only scratch the surface of all the exciting things happening in cities today. If you’re as excited as I am about all these inspiring projects, check out these awesome websites to learn even more about all the ways in which human community and innovation for sustainability is pretty stinkin’ cool:

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