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Urban Jungle Undone

The Curve, America Now, 2015 – Welcome to the real jungle: 70% of the U.S. population lives on just 3% of American land, and 75% of the global population will migrate to urban centers by 2050. While the environmental movement has traditionally focused on rain forests, manatees, and polar ice caps, cities are becoming the new frontier of sustainability—albeit redesigned to encompass health, wellness, education, family, and work-life balance. Make no mistake: Saving the urban jungle isn’t just an endeavor for tree huggers; the next wave of urban reclamation is as much about how to humanize cities as it is about zero-waste and LEED certification (although that’s also part of it).


Urban Jungle Undone

We’ve already seen examples of how unraveling the urban jungle can enhance the quality of life for millions of urbanites: bike-sharing services, which have skyrocketed by 700% globally in the last five years (according to Roland Berger Strategy Consultants), with corporate workers in suits pedaling alongside Midtown messengers (in its first year alone, New York’s Citi Bike riders took 8.8 million rides and traveled 14.7 million miles); vertical gardens, which improve air quality for office workers while also resulting in significant energy savings; and farm-to-table, which has gone five star (just try getting a reservation at locavore rock star restaurants Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California; Savoy, in New York; or Noma, in Denmark). As Arun Sundararajan, a professor of information, operations, and management sciences at New York University’s Stern School of Business and head of the Social Cities Initiative at the school’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, told us, cities are returning to a space for human interaction at a time when we are less connected to others than ever: “We are reintroducing some form of genuine, person-to-person interaction into our everyday economic activities (i.e., commuting to work, getting your groceries).”

With this in mind, here are some of the most powerful next-generation ideas that you may not have heard of yet, all of which are making the urban jungle much more human, livable, and even scenic—from designing for its four-feet-tall citizens to eating off of other people’s plates to creating entirely new cities from scratch (see Quay Valley, in Step 4).

“You have to focus on cities if you’re interested in sustainability because the majority of the world’s population live in cities. They are where we show humanity at both its best and its worst.”

– Jason F. McLennan, CEO, International Living Future Institute


STEP 1: Start Small (around four feet tall, to be exact)

The next big thing to revolutionize megacities may just be designing them for their most micro citizens. According to Jason F. McLennan, CEO of the International Living Future Institute (more from McLennan at, if cities were designed for children, they’d be more livable, sustainable, and enjoyable for everyone. As McLennan puts it: “When you create great places for children, you automatically create great places for you and me. You certainly create better places for seniors or people that are challenged from a mobility standpoint. You create places that have more excitement.”

So what does a child-first city look like? (Spoiler: It’s not all candy lunches, sticker parties, and puppies.) Think of this approach to urban design like baby-proofing a home: shifting the perspective and scale to just a few feet high, softening rough corners, and making it safer for vulnerable inhabitants. In practice, design shifts from accommodating 3,000-pound automobiles to optimizing for the four-feet-tall citizen. Much of it is intuitive: shorter city blocks, with pedestrian shortcuts that reduce the distance from A to B; buildings that are six-stories-high, tops to allow children to see what’s happening on the streets, call down to friends, and run down to ground level; sheltered seating areas scattered throughout so those with short legs—as well as anyone else, from the elderly to the office worker lugging home groceries—can sit and rest.

88% of Americans agree that cities have become more crowded, hectic, and harder to live in.

Furthermore, in a child-centered city, design is devoted to physical, mental, and creative stimulation, and urban infrastructures are transformed into playful, physically active, and educational experiences. Why not make some of those seated areas into swing sets, seesaws, and love seats, placed at various levels for all ages? The office worker would not only get a breather but also an opportunity to experience what McLennan calls “dizzying exhilaration.” The urban landscape incorporates more bike racks, sports fields and courts, public art, and playgrounds. Sidewalks, crosswalks, and walkways become hopscotch games. Perhaps most interestingly, child-centered urban design can transform cities into living classrooms: Interactive sculptures expose citizens to local history; edible trees and plants become agricultural lessons; exposed water, energy, and transportation systems draw people in to study—and improve upon—their neighborhoods.

Just as physical infrastructure can be rethought to benefit the child, so too can social infrastructures. While a zero-waste office building is great, it still keeps nine-to-fiver parents away from their children. The question is, can office buildings be transformed into spaces that serve the whole family? One major benefit of the rise of the indie workforce (see Air LLC) is the emergence of coworking environments that double as flexible child-care spaces. “While you’re getting your work done, your child is being über well taken care of all day,” says Diana Rothschild, the cofounder of NextKids, a San Francisco-based coworking space that provides high-end child care. “There is an intentionality behind integrating work and life.” Surprisingly, singles without kids have also flocked to NextKids, drawn by a work community that is more balanced, grounded, and down-to-earth.

63% of Americans believe that making cities more child-friendly will have a bigger impact on the environment than making cities more commuter-friendly (37%).


STEP 2: Free Your Mind

Much has already been written about the innovative green projects that are bettering cities, from Seattle’s proposed edible Beacon Food Forest (which will make apples, pineapples, and guavas available for anyone to pluck) to New York City’s High Line (which turned a long-abandoned elevated railroad track into a landscaped lush emerald destination) to inventive urban gardening projects such as living walls, seed bombing, and moss graffiti (see Green Rush, The Curve: Reinvention Issue).

But while urban spaces trade grit for greenery, the ultimate luxury in an increasingly urban world is ever-valuable mind space. Even the most type-A “always-on” corporate urbanites—the very same ones who brag about pulling PowerPoint all-nighters with their Blackberrys firmly in hand—are now turning to mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and $11 cold-pressed juices to survive the urban jungle. According to Melisse Gelula, the co-founder and editorial director of the zeitgeisty wellness lifestyle website Well+Good, mindfulness is the new luxury: “While you can’t control population density or escape it, you can change your response to the pressures of feeling encroached upon. Meditation is like a Malibu retreat in your mind.” There’s no denying that mindfulness has become a status symbol akin to an “It” bag when even the wolves of Wall Street are practicing it. In fact, hundreds of Goldman Sachs investment bankers now meditate (along with employees from General Mills, Aetna, and BlackRock, who are taught meditation as part of their employment training).

According to our nationally representative study, a surprising half (49%) of Americans meditate, and 56% say that in just 10 years, meditation will be more relevant than prayer (44%).

On some level, finding inner peace and quiet has even become a part of the rat race. After the World Economic Forum in Davos went silent for a 10-minute meditation session, the global power brokers in the room discussed how mindfulness can give executives a competitive advantage by promoting calmness, clarity, and creativity, and by reducing stress. According to the New York Times, meditation studios and conferences are replacing happy hours as the new go-to networking hubs. The Path, a meditation class in Manhattan, has become an unlikely hot spot for like-minded entrepreneurs and investors to connect. And for type-A careerists, even meditation has to fit into a tight schedule: Unplug Meditation, a guided-meditation studio in Los Angeles, offers 30- and 45-minute classes so that practitioners can get a dose of mindfulness amid their hectic schedules.

But the search for mental space isn’t just for Black Card members, it’s also tipping to the mainstream: According to our nationally representative study, a surprising half (49%) of Americans meditate, and 56% say that in just 10 years, mediation will be more relevant than prayer (44%). This is evidenced by the rise of restaurants and coffee shops where intentionally blocking cell-phone and Wi-Fi signals is a selling point, such as Faraday Café, in Vancouver. And while there are hundreds of “apps for that” (such as Headspace and FreeMeditation), there’s now also an Airbnb-for-the-mind,, which allows users to lease some peace of mind—in the form of minimally decorated, light-filled spaces—for an hourly rate.

STEP 3: Get Trashed

If the last decade of the green movement was about creating more environmentally friendly products, the next decade will be about how to not throw so much of it away. After all, who hasn’t found themselves tossing a handful of reusable freebie tote bags? This is especially true of food itself: Worldwide, almost 40% of fruits and vegetables will go to waste before it even reaches consumers, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. And uneaten food in America amounts to a loss of $161.6 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The big question is: How do we better manage our food resources? Technology is helping, with apps that create flexible pricing based on expiration dates (see The Price is Right, The Curve: Reinvention Issue). But there’s a larger shift under way: While farm-to-table has been the biggest food trend of the last decade, get ready for table-to-table or, more accurately yet perhaps less appetizingly, trash-to-table.

In some cases, trash-to-table means making use of “ugly” misshapen produce: Those mangled two-pronged carrots will not only be in your meal, but also the centerpiece of the plate. Europe is leading this trend: The European Union declared 2014 to be the European Year Against Food Waste. The French supermarket chain Intermarché recently introduced ads featuring “the grotesque apple,” “the failed lemon,” “the disfigured eggplant,” “the ugly carrot,” and the “unfortunate clementine” that were otherwise perfectly fine. The high-end Berlin-based catering company Culinary Misfits actually specializes in using ugly produce. Stateside, delivery services reminiscent of the reusable milk bottles of yore may play a big part in reducing waste. The start-up CSA Hungry Harvest, in the Washington, D.C., area, sells boxes of ugly produce at a reduced price (and for every sale, a food donation is made to needy families).

New grocery stores and restaurants are also transforming trash into culinary treasure. Doug Rauch, the former president of the grocery-store chain Trader Joe’s, has launched Daily Table, a grocery store, restaurant, and teaching kitchen outside of Boston, which will repurpose produce that’s slightly past its sell-by date and sell it to low-income residents at fast-food prices. If the experimental model works, he plans to expand nationwide. In Copenhagen, the nonprofit restaurant Spisehuset Rub & Stub creates a new menu each day based on the misshapen and near-expired produce donated to it from local supermarkets and farmers, which would have otherwise been thrown out. In New York, the iconic farm-to-table restaurant Blue Hill recently transformed for a day into wastED, a pop-up restaurant devoted to the theme of food waste and reuse, offering classic no-waste “peasant dishes” designed by renowned guest chefs from around the world, including Grant Achatz and Mario Batali.

MicroGreens educates urban youth on how to feed a family of four on $3.50—roughly the average daily Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit.

But waste management isn’t just about dumpster diving; it’s also about using food more efficiently so that it doesn’t end up in a dumpster in the first place. Food efficiency was part of the inspiration behind MicroGreens, a nonprofit organization that educates urban youth to feed a family of four for $3.50 per meal (and get more out of it than eggs, cilantro, and limes, as Gwyneth Paltrow did in her recent SNAP food stamp challenge). MicroGreens founder and president Alli Sosna was motivated by many factors—including witnessing a woman purchase a six-pack of beer with food stamps (yup, it’s legal) and thinking there must be a better way to provide nutrition to those in need. She started teaching inner-city kids knife skills—namely how to butcher a chicken (for a front-row seat, check out, where we took to the butcher block as part of her course). One chicken yields three meals—chicken salad, chicken soup, and chicken stir fry. Along with the other cost-saving skills and cooking techniques she teaches in her eight-week program, students learn to create high-quality zero-waste meals for a dollar less than the cost of one Big Mac. Says Sosna: “Quite frankly, I’m on a budget. A lot of people are on a budget. The MicroGreens curriculum came from saying, ‘Well, if I have this amount of money, how do I stretch that and make it taste good?’”

While it may be years before butchering one’s own meat or dumpster diving goes mainstream, America is open to change: A surprising 40% say trash-to-table dining has more promise than farm-to-table (60%). The real tipping point may just be making these techniques more palatable. Take, for instance, Josh Treuhaft, a recent master’s graduate of the Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, who created the 2014 Salvage Supperclub, a pop-up culinary experience that transformed a large dumpster into a catered six-course, white-tablecloth dining experience made entirely from ingredients retrieved from the trash piles of local stores and restaurants.

STEP 4: Dream Big— and Move East

Finally, one of the biggest ideas that could revolutionize cities is one that would redefine their borders: the Hyperloop. Conceived of by the serial futurist-entrepreneur Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, the Hyperloop is a high-speed transportation system that would sling people (and their cars) across long distances via speed rail. It’s as fast as a plane but bypasses freeways and emits no carbon. The conceptual first route would run from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area, making the 350-plus mile journey in just 35 minutes.

 “Cities 20 years from now are going to look very different from the cities of today. And digital technologies are going to be a big driver in reshaping them.”

—Arun Sundararajan, Professor of Business, New York University

Before you dismiss this as a futuristic Jetsons scenario, consider just how much bikes have already changed the structure of American cities—making New York’s Chelsea district unexpectedly reminiscent of cycle-chic Copenhagen. Imagine how different life would be if it were just a 20-minute jaunt from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for dinner and if the commute from Philadelphia (sixth borough?) to New York were reduced to just 10 minutes. Cities would become mere metro stops. Housing prices wouldn’t impact job prospects, and the problem of overcrowded cities might abate if there were a quick commute to the suburbs. And then there’s the environmental impact of doing away with the internal combustion engine: Catch the Hyperloop into the city, then grab a Citi Bike for a quick spin to the office, perhaps with your kid along for the ride. As McLennan notes, “I am watching very carefully what Elon Musk is doing in a few different areas. He’s thinking not in terms of a car, but a system.”

Similarly to how the advent of the car sparked the rise of the suburbs, the Hyperloop is already sparking ideas for the 21st-century city. The team of engineers currently building a $100 million mock-up of the Hyperloop midway between LA and San Francisco is also building its own model pit stop: Quay Valley. There’s no McDonald’s drive-through here—this proposed 150,000-resident town, with on-site organic farming, would be completely sustainable, powered via a 600-megawatt power plant.

Brand Opportunities


We’re not advising that you forget about the rain forests, but environmental innovation in urban centers will impact the largest swath of the American population.


Products, services, and environments fit for the world’s four-feet-tall citizens will result in more appealing experiences for all. Think beautiful, safe, spacious, and playful.


With population density encroaching on personal space, mindfulness is being integrated into every area of life: home, work, retail, food, and even nightlife.


Consider how to use waste as a resource—upcycle it, salvage it, or simply serve it up again—to a new consumer.

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