Urban Transformation

This is your guide to Isobenefit Urbanism — the thinking behind the cities of the future

Isobenefit Urbanism rethinks the way we manage our cities, prioritising walkability and green space.

Isobenefit Urbanism rethinks the way we manage our cities, prioritising walkability and green space. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Luca S. D’Acci
Associate Professor, Inter-university Department of Regional & Urban Studies and Planning, Polytechnic of Turin
David Banister
Professor Emeritus, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford
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Net Zero Carbon Cities

This article is part of: Centre for Urban Transformation

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  • Cities worldwide will have 5 billion new inhabitants by 2050, and gain more than a million square kilometres in area.
  • This presents a major opportunity — and impetus — to rethink our urban environments, and Isobenefit Urbanism could be the answer.
  • Isobenefit Urbanism guides planners to think about cities around walking-distance centralities within natural lands, connected via public transit to ensure the conglomeration still benefits from the economy of scale.

By 2050, cities worldwide will have 5 billion new inhabitants. Globally, 80% of us will live in cities, and by 2030 we’ll add 1.2 million km² on to the land area covered by cities.

When it comes to our city environments, though, there is significant room to improve.

Cities globally consume 75% of energy and materials. They generate 80% of greenhouse gas, and city air pollution kills ​1.8 million people annually. Their sprawled mono-functional structure costs $1 trillion yearly in the US alone and urban mental illness yearly cost $1 trillion. Every year, cars ​cause 1.3 million deaths and 20-50 million injuries. Road accidents ​cost 3% of GDP in most countries, while traffic occupies 60% of public space. and, ultimately, cities are on average not the happiest for most.

Planning better urban forms might alleviate these issues. In the coming decades, we have a genuinely unique opportunity — and an important responsibility — to build new cities from scratch, and expand existing ones.

Have you read?

An urban DNA for our cities

In the early 2010s, Isobenefit Urbanism proposed cities where each point can reach continuous natural areas, job locations, centralities, shops, amenities — recreational, medical and cultural — as well as the usual daily activities by walking or cycling.

Isobenefit Urbanism adds proximity to centralities and nature within a mile, and an isobenefit-genetic-code (DNA) implementable via a self-planning algorithm, generating infinite urban-phenotypes from a sole urban-genotype.

Isobenefit Urbanism principles are in fact a kind of urban DNA that does not give any predetermined form and structure, but instead provides individual actions for specific contexts. Imagine the DNA of a plant which does not directly write any shape, but it just says to the plant how it should grow with goal-oriented indications. For a plant, these commands would adapt its shape with the goal of taking as much light as possible or adjust to the dominant wind and physical constraints.

Regardless of their size, Isobenefit cities maintain constant proportions between built and green areas; ensure a walkable distance to centralities and to green areas; enjoy economies of agglomeration while limiting their diseconomies; have a flexible urban growth form and remove the pressure posed from spatial constrains like green belts. They benefit from reduced urban heat island effects, less pollution and less car surface occupancy, which currently takes up around 60% of public space. Congestions and carbon emissions are lower. Isobenefit cities stand to make us healthier and happier.

Unpacking Isobenefit Urbanism and the meta one-mile green city

Each of the infinite urban isobenefit phenotypes is a meta 1 mile-green-city. But what does that mean?

Let’s disentangle the terms.

Isobenefit: equal proximity to benefit centralities, amenities, services, workplaces and green space. It partially builds upon the isobenefit lines concept, which argues that the place people choose to lie in a city depends on a complex calculation of proximity to their own personal needs.

1-mile: the nearest centrality, amenities, services, workplaces and natural lands are within a walking distance in any point of the city. The term-concept was “walking-city” — bearing in mind, though, that there are different walking speeds depending on age, moods and goals. Isobenefit Urbanism accounts for this by instead designating a subjective “reasonable” time it takes to reach destinations by walking.

Meta: these walking units are interconnected via public transport options like skytrains, making a whole city — thus benefitting from economies of agglomeration and scaling advantages — while keeping the walking access to most daily points like work and green space. Making any points easily reachable from distant locations thanks to the interconnectedness of walking and accessible public transport avoids some diseconomies of agglomeration, while reaching population thresholds to make centralities economically viable. It also creates hyper-connected archipelagos of walking units rather than enclaved walking-ghettos. Isobenefit Urbanism doesn’t want a local community life by definition, it doesn’t spatially confine daily life — it extends it.

Green city: a city within the wood-forest-parks. It proposes a new relation between city and nature, whose implications and paradigm shift range from local to metropolitan-territorial scale.

Implementing Isobenefit Urbanism

Making Isobenefit Urbanism a reality is no easy feat — unless applied to entirely new cities.

The flexibility of Isobenefit Urbanism enables local authorities, planners and real estate developers to more easily fit their individual projects into the wider Isobenefit framework of club-type networks, proximities and green or built patterns. In fact, there is no need for fixed regulations, such as maximum or minimum heights, density requirements, design typologies or specific zoning.

In practical terms, municipal planning institutions would check the existing situation in terms of proximity from residences to their closest centrality and greenspace, and then assess whether they satisfy the Isobenefit Urbanism indicators. As with all planning decisions, it is more complicated to apply Isobenefit Urbanism in existing cities — which is why the coming decades of urban expansion represent such an important opportunity.

However, existing sites can be used too. The post-industrial era provides opportunities to re-use urban areas — such as redundant factories, obsolete constructions and brownfield sites —to develop urban settlements according to Isobenefit targets.

It also has potential at the village scale. Investing in ‘merging’ semi-ghost villages, which the world has plenty of, through a mass transit network between them and nearby towns and cities would create Isobenefit centralities within them, breathing new life into these areas.

As the world’s cities swell to accommodate billions of new inhabitants, it is essential that we start thinking now about how to best manage this growth. Embracing Isobenefit Urbanism as we rejuvenate existing cities, and build whole new urban areas, would provide a good quality of life for those living in them, while also helping the global fight against climate change.

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