The Next American City

Question: What is the most important next step for American Cities?

Enrique Penalosa: We have to understand why people went to the suburbs.  It’s not because they were dumb.  It is because the suburbs were providing some things that the dense cities were not.  The suburbs provided, ironically, safe spaces for children to ride bicycles, because people wanted the children to play safe in the street and ride a bicycle and, ironically, these completely car-dependent environments provided that. 

Also, the suburbs provide green and contact with nature, more parks, but I believe it is possible to create cities which provide a little bit of both.  Higher density environments. You don’t need, by the way, fifty-story high buildings to have high density.  You can have just with five, six-story high buildings you can have very high densities, a huge amount of pedestrian and bicycle networks, greenways, bus-ways, and we could very easily, with very simple details, have completely different cities that would work much better than the ones that we have today.

Question: Are many American cities moving in the right direction?

What I see all over the United States it is clear.  I talked the Texas developers and they talk like the most progressive and expert urbanites about mixed use and density and all this, but I think we have to be even more radical, because we talk about the new urbanism [sic], in the U.S., which is like going back to this quaint 1900 town.

I think we can do some much more radical things with much bigger pedestrian spaces; some more creative and different conceptions of a modern city, giving much more importance to the bicycle.

Now we have a new machine that I think is going to contribute to completely changing the way we live, which is the electric bicycle--because this allows people to use bicycles over longer distances or over hills, or elderly people.

Bicycles; in the future I think protected bicycle ways are going to be as obvious as sidewalks are today, to have a protected bicycle everywhere. 

And the United States will have to develop in higher density environments. And the only way to do this is demolishing some of these inner suburbs, and making higher densities.  These new developments can be completely different, not just the typical street and sidewalk, but you could have, as we are talking about, completely different urban environments. 

Recorded on: Aug 4, 2009.

Enrique Peñalosa explains why we must be radical in reshaping urban space.

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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.
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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.