Cities of the Future Should Be Healthy For Everyone

What are the cities of the future? We urgently need to rethink our cities by designing urban spaces that are healthy for all of its inhabitants. All of them, not just humans, says Alexandra Střelcová, concerning a Prague-based initiative that promotes plant research, in her report after her participation in CityLab 2022.

When Bloomberg CityLab– the ultimate global cities summit organized by Bloomberg Philanthropies in partnership with Aspen Institute– took place in Washington DC in October 2019, delegates warmly promised each other to resume discussions next year. Now, a pandemic, the war in Ukraine and a string of catastrophic natural disasters later, the world’s eminent urban innovators could finally convene once again. 

Bloomberg CityLab 2022

Held in Amsterdam between 9 and 11 October 2022, the ninth edition of this iconic gathering brought together more than five hundred city leaders, experts, scientists, and artists from around the world. The goal? To discuss solutions to pressing issues – from pandemic recovery to welcoming refugees, from global conflicts to combating climate change.

Let’s Rethink Our Cities

Yet despite the electrifying atmosphere, combined with sleek conference vibes, there was indeed no time to lose when it came to opening difficult topics. 

There are real world consequences to climate change and your city could be next,” said Mike Bloomberg in his keynote address, setting the agenda for the days to come. 

On top of the star-studded line-up (alongside Mike Bloomberg, speakers included the pre-eminent architect Sir Norman Foster, Kyiv’s mayor Vitali Klitchko, Washington’s mayor Muriel Bowser or economist Mariana Mazzucato, to name just a few), one important, overarching theme led the conference narrative: the urgent need to rethink our cities by designing urban spaces that are healthy for all of its inhabitants. We all know what the challenges are. So let’s discuss the solutions. 

Amsterdam as a Living Laboratory

Fortunately, there could not have been a better fit for a host city this year. With its DNA based on radical openness, urge for innovation, and passion for entrepreneurship, Amsterdam already is a living laboratory for urban innovation with a proven track record in transforming big words into real solutions. Bike lanes. Adaptive reuse. Nature-based solutions. Improving mental health through nature. Turning asphalt into public space arts installations and increasing pedestrian safety while at it. 

To begin with, delegates were catered to a canal cruise like no other. Led by spatial planner Zaf Hemel and hydrologist Maarten Ouboter, participants were literally immersed in Amsterdam’s intrinsic relationship with water (and the rising sea levels for that matter). Useful trivia: there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam – 1.8 million bikes to be precise. And twelve thousand bikes are pulled out of the canals every year.

But fun aside, one particular subject lingered in the hearts and minds of everyone. “Typically, mayors in peace time are responsible for building city ecosystems that consider sustainable development, environment, housing or security. But our mayor has had to deal with unthinkable responsibilities as a result of an illegal, unprovoked, full-scale invasion by Russian forces on February 24,” pointed out Yuliya Tychkivska, Director of Aspen Institute Kyiv

Coincidentally, the address came on the day when Russian missile strikes hit more than 80 civilian targets across the country, including a children’s playground.

While we’re talking about improving public space in cities around the world, Russia right now is destroying ours,” argued Vitali Klitchko in a pre-recorded interview with Tychkivska, further emphasizing that Ukraine will need a Marshall Plan for rebuilding. 

The key to peace and stability in Europe is to support Ukraine,” added Klitchko. Afterall, it’s the largest country on the continent. And somehow, that plan is already under way – at least in Kharkiv where the reconstruction scheme takes place under the supervision of none other than Sir Norman Foster.

Art in Public in the Cities of the Future

Crises are opportunities. We don’t remember the Great Fire of London and the plague that followed suit. But these events changed the look of cities forever”, says the legendary British architect, noting that cities of the future should also be more fun. How to achieve this? 

All art in public is important. You are a participant whether you like it or not,” says Vladimir Yavachev, nephew of the legendary Christo. 

His ultimate mission is to finish the Mastaba originally conceived by the Bulgaria-born artist and his long-time partner and collaborator Jeanne-Claude in 1977. Forty-five years later and almost two years after Christo’s passing, work is finally about to start in the desert close to Abu Dhabi, making it the largest permanent artwork worldwide.

But Christo and Jean-Claude never made art with a political message. “Christo liked art for art’s sake a great deal. And that is even more powerful because everyone brings their own message to it,” says Yavachev. All the projects by Christo and Jeanne-Claude are made of recycled materials, something the artists themselves have practised for nearly sixty years. They are also self-financed and free to visit, pouring millions into economies of cities that host them. 

It is not surprising that Emmanuel Macron reportedly uttered, upon the wrapping of the Arc du Triomphe in Paris last year, that France needed more crazy art projects. Everyone needs more crazy art projects if they’re done this way.

But not everyone agrees with Christo’s non-partisan mission. “All art is a political statement”, says Amir Nizar Zuabi, the Palestine-born award-winning theater director and the creator of The Walk. In this arts project, he brings Little Amal, a 3.5 tall puppet of a ten-year-old refugee girl to cities across the world to deliver one powerful message: hope.

The Walk

Her surprise walk through Amsterdam’s canals attracted hundreds of passersby who joined the procession that concluded, quite fittingly, in front of the Anne Frank House to the sound of both a klezmer band and Arabic singers.

Urban Spaces of the Future Should Be Healthy For Everyone

No one was born a refugee, yet this year has seen millions of people fleeing their homes worldwide. Increasingly, the climate crisis is driving further displacement, making life harder for those already forced to flee. Women and girls experience the greatest impacts of climate change, further amplifying existing gender inequalities and posing unique threats to their livelihoods, health and safety. There has been much discussion about climate refugees but that definition is still not officially endorsed by UNHCR.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink the perception of refugees as such – even the word itself brings a host of dubious connotations. Instead of sympathizing with their misery, we should learn from their resilience. The quicker their integration will be, the more beneficial for everyone involved. For those looking for inspiration, head to the Amsterdam-based OpenEmbassy set up by Renée Frissen and Welcoming America run by Rachel Perić, herself a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.

Ultimately, much of this year’s Bloomberg CityLab revolved around the urge to prevent bleak futures cities are reminded of with ever-increasing intensity: heatwaves, floods, biodiversity loss, and other manners with which climate change manifests itself globally.

If we are to implement the principles of circular economy into our cities, we need to forward a vision of life that people want to take part in instead of being forced to it,” says Christian Bason, CEO of Danish Design Center. 

And as Amanda Burden, former commissioner of city planning in New York City and the mastermind behind the iconic High Line claimed, the importance of nature in cities is not a radical thought – it’s a necessity. Indeed, we urgently need to rethink our cities by designing urban spaces that are healthy for all of its inhabitants. All of them, not just humans.

This article was written thanks to the author’s participation in the CityLab 2022 in Amsterdam hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies and Aspen Institute CE.

Alexandra Střelcová

is a co-founder of Haenke, a Prague-based initiative that promotes plant research and its potential in tackling global issues related to health, medicine as well as design or architecture. She studied Marketing Communications and Public Relations at Charles University in Prague and holds a Master’s degree in Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship from Goldsmiths College, University of London. While in London, she worked as a communications consultant for classical music artists and launched a non-profit incubator, NX Creative Lab that was aimed at advising young start ups within creative industries. Since 2016, she has been working for El Sistema Greece, a community project – a member of UNHCR’s With Refugees campaign – that provides free music education to children living in Greece.

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