In 2008, humanity reached a milestone. For the first time in our history, more than half of us were living in cities versus rural areas. It’s hard to hear this news and not picture a claustrophobic Blade Runner-esque world of overcrowded urban slums, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
Cities, if built well, are actually good for humanity. People who live in dense cities walk more, and thus have healthier hearts. City dwellers also have a much lower carbon footprint than suburbanites.
So a more city-centric future doesn’t mean we’ll be living in some horrible dystopia, as long as we build our cities thoughtfully. Here are some things we can do now to make our cities healthier, safer, more livable places.
1. Get a bike (or a bikeshare program).
The latest global trend is to make cities more bikeable and walkable. If you live in places like Portland, Denver, New York, or Washington, DC, you’ve probably noticed bikeshare programs or bike-friendly features like bike lanes and bike storage depots. These initiatives encourage positive change in multiple ways.
First, they improve the health of the bikers. Second, they mean fewer people in cars or other forms of motorized transport, which means lower carbon emissions and less air pollution. Third, they make cities quieter. And fourth — especially in cities with heavy traffic and a lot of gridlock — they make commutes quicker. Living in DC, I can get home twice as quickly during rush hour on my bike as I can taking the bus.
On a personal level, this is easy enough: Just buy a bike. But if you want to make your city more bike-friendly on the whole, push for new programs like bikeshares and dedicated bike lanes.
2. Plant a tree.
One of the most important things you can do for your city is also one of the simplest: Plant a tree. We tend to take for granted just how important trees are to human populations. They absorb one-fifth of our total climate emissions (on the flip side, deforestation is the second leading contributor to carbon emissions). This absorption saves Americans $6.8 billion dollars a year in medical expenses alone, and that’s not even including the psychological effects — trees have a huge impact on mental well-being and happiness. It’s even been shown that trees make people kinder and more likely to give money to charities.
So naturally, a greener city is a happier, healthier city. Which means if you push for that empty lot at the end of your street to be converted into a park, you’re basically improving your life and the life of everyone around you in ways that will last for years.
3. Support and create local art.
It’s hard to put numbers to how important art is to cities. It’s one of those intangible things that doesn’t necessarily express itself in dollars or cents or in data points on a chart.
But the arts are extremely important to city living because they’re often the manner in which a city expresses its identity. Think of Austin, which has this reputation as a quirky oasis of fun and weirdness in the otherwise conservative state of Texas. That’s due largely to the work of their local music and art scenes. Other cities have personalities, too: New York as the metropolitan melting pot, Portland as the intersection of Seattle hipsters and San Francisco hippies, Boston as the working-class beer-and-sports town, and so on.
These personalities were created not out of a vacuum, but through the efforts of the people who live there. These people at first were just strangers living in the same place, but through their art and creativity, they came together and forged an identity. Art is what makes living in cities fun and worthwhile, and if you want your city to be as vibrant as the ones mentioned, you should both support and contribute to your local scene.