Urban Issues and Work-Life Balance

Performances of cities in handling Urban Issues

Urban issues – traffic congestion

Living in cities has been the aspiration of many. But despite the economic opportunities that open up, there is a price to pay for an urban lifestyle. Cities have become synonymous with crowded living, traffic congestion, lack of affordable housing and social disparities. In short, cities are reaching their limits for the masses.

Take infrastructure. Utilities that were built 50 years ago can no longer service current populations. Roads are no longer able to bear the weight of vehicle volume, energy and water systems require urgent maintenance and waste management is stretched to cope with exorbitant consumer trends. The uneven distribution of wealth in cities is another problem. This has created urban poverty, even in the most affluent of cities.  The tension, particularly in middle class societies, is exacerbated by lack of affordable housing, rising prices of food and other necessities, and expensive healthcare and education costs.  In cases where public security is inefficient, petty crime levels start to escalate.  Ageing populations in cities can add to the challenges as housing and healthcare needs for elderly communities have to be provided, as well as getting around in cities where accessibility to public spaces and transport systems cannot be taken for granted for aged use.

Climate change also affects us. The phenomenon is not new as shifts in weather patterns have occurred in the past with historical ice ages and the like. What differs today is the pace and scale of change. The burning of fossil fuels leading to greenhouse gas emissions has ascended rapidly over the past three decades as China overtook developed nations like the US to become the largest emitter in the world. The original Kyoto talks back in 1995 attempted to set targets for the developed and developing countries to avoid rises in carbon levels but these have made little headway in uniting the world even up to the recent discussions in Paris late last year. The latest agreements of nationally declared commitments show that there is much to do. At a city level, climate change spells natural disaster. Flooding, heatwaves and rising sea levels mean that cities especially those on the coast are at risk.  Communities face disruptions and discomfort and vulnerable sectors of society, like slum dwellers, suffer most when flooding or severe weather storms occur.

So with all these problems, how do we improve cities? How can we inject a more positive attitude to stressed-out citizens?

Firstly, a place to live must be affordable. Ownership or rental of housing must be accessible to the majority of the population. Financing models in the future may allow a flexible hybrid of rental and ownership to meet housing needs at an affordable level according to income and stage of life while still retaining the feeling of having a place to call home.

The feeling of connection is important and cities should be redesigned away from more highways that isolate communities towards incorporating carbon-friendly mobility modes such as walking and cycling to link them up.  We are still reticent about surrendering our dependence on motor vehicles, but planners of the future should be looking at how infrastructure for driverless cars, carpooling and transport on demand can be developed. This will trigger new ways of thinking around user-centric mobility for commuting as well as connecting people and places.

With connection, people will acquire a sense of belonging. This is more than just making people feel good about where they live. A strong identification with places means that people will be less likely to succumb to vandalism as they will respect public assets. Coupled with a vibrant economy and community spirit, a sense of belonging becomes a form of self-regulation which reinforces public security and makes policing much easier.

Uniqueness of place helps draw outsiders in to want to visit a city where they can invest their time and money. This is not to support the notion that every city needs a grand monument to achieve uniqueness.  A simple symbolic icon like a highly acclaimed college, an interesting museum or even a successful sports team would be sufficient to instill pride and strengthen local culture for inhabitants.

An inclusive society is one that can accommodate intergenerational communities, where families can thrive and grow. Ageing in place will become more prominent in the near future with the rise of greying populations and there is an opportunity here to design adaptable and affordable housing to suit the needs of different generations. Accessibility to elderly healthcare and daycare facilities discretely blended with schools and youth centers is a feature of integrated communities.

Ultimately, we need to appreciate that resources are finite and being stewards of the environment means that we use our resources wisely.  Systems to build a ‘circular economy’ to re-use waste, to recycle water and to produce energy from renewable sources are not new – what needs attention is the need to shift public behaviour to respect resources.  Policies are important to shape such attitudes. City authorities need to work with manufacturers to ease the population away from one-trip items to deposit schemes whereby products are reused wherever possible and discarded as a last resort.

Lastly, a sign of healthy communities is a balance between work and quality of life. By the very fact that people have chosen an urban lifestyle means that they want to succeed as entrepreneurs or be part of a thriving workforce. But unhappy workplaces make for unhappy workers. In addition, if the quality of life is low, this compounds the unhappiness. Getting the balance right between economic performance and enjoying life is key. Sitting in traffic commuting to work or dealing with debilitating politics or corruption are examples that beset the typical citizen. Work life balance involves many stakeholders – governments to understand that happy societies are ones that make cities prosper, employers to understand that workforces can be more productive when they are inspired and employees to make life choices to enjoy quality of life yet lead fulfilling careers. A balanced city is a healthy city. But there is a lot of work to do to get there.

So in conclusion, making cities affordable, connected, unique, inclusive and resource conscious will make a better place and set the scene for work-life balance to improve the way we live and make for a happier society.

(The views of this article are solely the author’s)

By Thomas Tang


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