The New Model for Urban Progress

Question: What are the challenges in making urban areas more sustainable?

Penalosa: Only in 2009 or 2010 or 2008, the world became more urban than rural for the first time in history.  The developing world’s cities are growing extremely fast.  Latin American urban development happened mostly between 1950 and 2000.  The same thing that happened in Latin America, going from about 30 percent urban to about 70 or 80 percent urban, is the same thing that is happening in Asia now between 2000 and 2050—only in Asia, urban population is increasing by like 45 million people per year.  But the amazing problem is that we are not really well organized for this.  It is something that is much easier than putting somebody on the moon, but yet we have slums in many, many countries, all over the world.  We have people either in slums or people living in over-crowded rooms with their whole family.

Enrique Penalosa on the cause of slums

Penalosa: So, if we find slums everywhere it cannot be because there was a bad Mayor or a bad President, because it cannot be that all Mayors are bad or stupid or corrupt everywhere in the world.  There is a problem with the system.  The system has a problem because the market economy, does not work well in the case of land around growing cities.

The market works well when prices increase–as prices increase, for example, in the case of tomatoes, the price of tomatoes increases, tomato production increases, and then the prices go down.  But in the case of land around growing cities, if the price of land increases, the supply of land cannot increase—especially not the supply of land adjacent to the city where there is access to water, to schools, to jobs, to transportation.

That is really not justification for land around cities being private. In the countries, such as Sweden or Finland, since around 1900, 1904, all land around the cities belongs to the government.  But in developing countries, a few rich people own the agriculture land around the city and they make enormous unjustified gains in the transformation between this land from rural to urban.

They are really are not effective tax gains, to tax earned profits from them.  The problem is not so much that they make unjustified profits, but the problem is that the poor cannot solve their housing in a good well-designed neighborhood and the right places so that low income people go to the wrong places.  Sometimes many, very often, to places who have high risks, such as landslide risk and some very high steep hills where they have to go to live or to flooding areas where which flood and many people die.  Or anyway these surrounding neighborhoods, they have not enough public spaces, not enough roads, not enough parks, not enough anything.

On the limits of the market

Penalosa: We are at a time in where people believe in the market. That the market solves everything. In the case of cities, the market does not work very well. Government has to intervene. The market does not work well in the case of land around growing cities. The market does not, cannot, decide how wide sidewalks are or how high buildings are or how many parks we should have.  The market will never create central parks. It’s government that will create the central parks and the pedestrian walkways. So, in this case of cities the market does not work well.  Here is society, through something that we call government even though it is a dirty word to many people that has to decide what to do.  The market will not created great cities.  The market is creating gated condominiums in suburban low-density developments.

Enrique Peñalosa discusses the main challenge confronting developing cities and outlines some possible solutions.

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10 excerpts from Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' to unlock your inner Stoic

Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.

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Personal Growth
  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
  • The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.