Cities often get a bad rap as havens of crime, environmental pollution, graffiti and tiny apartments. But though living in a studio about the size of most people’s bedrooms can strain one’s sanity, city dwellers have the opportunity to be part of a revolutionary movement to solve some of the most pressing environmental and social issues of today.

In Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World (Bloomsbury Press, $27), internationally recognized urbanist Jeb Brugmann synthesizes more than 20 years of fieldwork and research on urban areas to explain what makes cities really work and, more importantly, how we can make them work for us.

Though all cities are unique, Brugmann argues that the sheer density of cities allows and encourages diverse groups of people to organize economically, socially and politically in ways that have both local and global reach. Currently, city dwellers make up more than half of the world’s population. Known as “Homo Urbanis,” each urbanite brings to the table a different set of skills and ideas that, combined with others’ ideas and skills, create unique opportunities for collaboration that aren’t found in rural areas.

But despite the vast opportunities that cities offer, many continue to crumble and falter. One reason, explains Brugmann, is the increasing movement to treat cities as industrial commodities. Just as a generic, big-box chain can never truly capture the unique nature and feel of a mom-and-pop store no matter how many times it mentions “family” in its commercials, city planners and government leaders can’t create a shared sense of community in a city simply by using Orwellian doublespeak to refer to suburban residential city models as “villages” and shopping malls as “town districts.”

In addition, many poorly planned cities are built to act as “parasitic systems” that “disrupt the metabolism of Earth’s great green, blue, tan and white biomes,” eventually triggering “chaotic ecological collapse,” writes Brugmann. And, with population growth steadily increasing and the world’s resources rapidly decreasing, the problem will only intensify.

But there is hope. Brugmann says that thriving cities can be achieved in part with a dedicated set of government leaders and community members who share a common goal in recreating urban areas that are self-sustaining. For example, Dublin, Ireland, once a declining old port and manufacturing center with high unemployment, has since transformed itself into one of Europe’s most vibrant centers of finance and high-tech industry. Says Brugmann, “With this malleability, what a city did wrong 20 years ago can be re-crafted into something right.”

Cities also have the ability to go beyond correcting immediate problems by channeling their forces of commerce, culture, technology and demographics into a new force against the overlying problems of poverty, inequity, injustice and environmental degradation. And since cities are responsible for 70 percent to 80 percent of the world’s energy consumption, the transformation of cities into “citysystems” that develop alongside ecosystems naturally, argues Brugmann, is the only we that we can even begin to tackle the mess known as climate change.

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MNN homepage photo: Zach Klein/Flickr 

'Welcome to the Urban Revolution'
Author Jeb Brugmann argues that the population density of cities creates a unique opportunity for collaboration on economic, social and political issues.