As humanity confronts multiple historic challenges, our settlements and their characteristics are set to play a central role – especially so in a time of historic rapid urbanization. Our cities, towns and suburbs are where we interact, move about, consume resources, develop and deploy our technologies, and create most of the impacts we are having on Planet Earth. In that sense, our settlements are major contributors to our challenges – but they also offer an important platform for joining up key issues of emissions and contamination, resource use and depletion, and ecological destruction, as well as challenges of equitable human development, health, and well-being.
In recent years, the sciences have made considerable advances in understanding the nature of our settlements, and the urgent need to reform our “business as usual” practices. The New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals – both adopted by acclamation by all 193 member states of the United Nations – reflect many of these advances, and both documents plainly state the powerful case for reform. But the systems by which we plan, design and build, are still “locked in” to many of the old and failing practices that have brought us to crisis. Breakthrough approaches to reform are needed.
At the same time, many citizens are increasingly mobilized to oppose projects that they see as incompatible, even ugly, and degrading of their quality of life. In a democracy, they have a right to be heard, and to be taken seriously. Moreover, the research shows a clear divergence between the citizens and the specialists who carry out much of the building work – and the research also reveals why experts can lose touch with both the needs of their users, and the urgency of genuine reform. This scientific knowledge can help to guide us to more effective reform, and to the crucial transition to a healthier urban world.
This conference will focus on that missing gap: from understanding to action, in transitioning to more ecological ways of building and settling. We will gather in Poundbury, a new urban extension developed under the guidance of the UK’s Charles III, along with many collaborators over three decades. Poundbury is a fitting venue, and a remarkable laboratory of multiple experiments in ecological technology, socially supportive design, and economic opportunity for all. It demonstrates an impressive departure from “business as usual,” with instructive lessons on its successes as well as its remaining challenges.