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MSU urban planners are grappling with the sustainable future of our cities

KIrk Heinze, Mark Wilson

Urban planning at Michigan State University is the oldest program in the country,” Mark Wilson tells Kirk Heinze on Greening of the Great Lakes.  “We have over 65 years of experience teaching about urban planning.

“It’s a popular major because we find that so many students today are interested in what is going to happen to the cities of the future.  Increasingly there is a theme of sustainability that runs through their interest.”

Wilson is a professor and program leader of the Urban and Regional Planning program in MSU’s School of Planning, Design and Construction.

He says that urban planners have always been concerned about sustainability.

“We have breathed new life into the profession because the application is seen more strongly now.  But there’s always been a long standing thread in urban planning around good land use, quality of life and social justice.

“What we’re finding now, though, is that students are seeing the future of their cities as something that is threatened; that the way of life that we have expected could change.”

Wilson says that one of the things that frustrates urban planners is when land doesn’t get used and reused.

“If you look at successful cities, every piece of land turns over and is quickly in a new role.”  Successful cities have always been able to find productive uses for their land, he adds.  “And I think this ability to innovate and constantly turn over the functions of your land in your city to something productive is very strong.

“What we find, however, in some cities in Michigan is that we can’t do that.  We can’t take that land that was productive for decades and then find a new use for it.  That is the big challenge.

“I really think that we need to value urban land for what it is.  We put huge investments into cities and infrastructure, and to simply say we’re going to use it for 80 years and then walk away is a colossal waste of resources and opportunity.”

Wilson adds that the long term viability of urban agriculture depends on how we see the cities of the future.

“How do we imagine the city?  This is a time when we need to step back and think about what does the city do and who does it serve.  Most cities are the product of industrialization; so manufacturing drove the creation of cities.  So if we’re in a post-industrial economy, what does that do to cities?

“Cites are economic creations as well as being social creations.  So if a certain economic activity like manufacturing built a city, what happens if that type of economic activity is no longer the driver of the economy?  We then have to think about our investments in place, what it means to be urban, what functions can cities do well, what are cities still good for?

“It really does demand a lot of soul searching about what our future cities will become.  For the moment, we have great applications for agriculture and productive uses for those lands in cities.  For the long term outlook, I’m not so sure.”

As Wilson looks to the future of cities he says he’s a great believer in density and that density has earned a bad reputation.

“I don’t think we appreciate what density can bring, both in the smaller physical and environmental footprint and also the types of opportunities and services that having people closer together can provide.

“One interesting challenge that we face now is that most people don’t have a positive or familiar vison of downtown because downtowns since the 60’s have often been challenged.  So it’s hard to imagine the city of the future when your experience is all suburban.

“If your vision of how we live is living in the suburbs and moving around in cars, presenting an alternative argument and having people understand the costs and benefits is very hard.

“All of this really raises the issue of what can we expect from our cities.  Can we live any way we want?  Can we live within guidelines designed by environment or the economy?  How profligate can we be in our use of resources to sustain the way we live?  Or do we need to live within our means more, thinking about what it is our cities will do to the built environment?”

Greening of the Great Lakes airs inside MSU Today Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on AM 870.

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