Recent years have seen a flurry of speculation as to the form and structure of a city able to sustainably support our future needs. But is such speculation just wasted, wishful thinking? Emerging research in the fields of human evolution suggest that a new chicken and egg debate is forming in relation to our urban future. Now we must ask which will come first in the shift towards a sustainable future; urban revolution or human evolution?

Increasingly, contemporary visions for urban futures follow a trend towards the built environment becoming the new natural environment, with urban farming, organic forms and vertical nature strips. They show pictures of a future city full of happy and healthy people coexisting in a built environment that is sculpted to cultivate new healthy lifestyles for the wellbeing of all in society.

This imagery is far removed from the current reality of most suburban settlements, with their polluting consumerist habits, unstable economies and overweight populations placing a strain on the environment they inhabit. Given the reality of our current situation, are suburban renewal and densification proposals a realistic future for our greater urban populations? Or are they just as unlikely as the Ebezner Garden City visions that fueled their creation in the first place?

These utopian schemes are based around the assumption that environmental changes act as catalysts for healthy social evolution. It is believed that the creation of healthy environments will automatically alter lifestyles and behavioral patterns leading our species towards a new healthy future.

Such social changes are possible, which is evident in the adoption of new habits in particular population groups in cities that have seen urban renewal. But a significant majority shift relies on a cultural and behavioural change in the wider society, a premise which while desirable has proven difficult to achieve in the lower socioeconomic classes that stand to benefit the most.

This inertia can be explained by Abraham Maslow‘s psychological Hierarchy of Needs theory.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs


Striving for a healthy and active lifestyle, similar to those illustrated in contemporary utopian imagery, is a need of the second tier or ‘safety’ needs. Individuals striving for such a lifestyle already have physiological security; they don’t have to worry about whether they have enough money to pay the rent, their food source is secure and they don’t suffer from chronic illness. In their circumstances, the built environment can have an impact on their behavior, such as whether to walk or cycle to work, as the environment provides an incentive to fulfill this need for a healthier lifestyle.

For those who are still struggling to meet the basic requirements for human survival, such as access to basic shelter and food security, unless the environment in some way assists their ability to fulfill physiological security it is unlikely to impact on their behavior. For these groups, an unsustainable lifestyle, which may including living in suburban fringe housing, eating unhealthy highly processed foods and relying on government welfare is not a behavioral decision, it is their only option to attempt to fulfill their basic physiological needs and consequently, in our current society, is to the detriment of their ability to strive for higher, and more sustainable, means.

But what if there were a way that ensured a sustainable behavioural change was inevitable by removing the choice to behave in an unsustainable manner? If we know that human behavior is incentivized to meet a certain order of needs, how can we use this to our advantage in ensuring that our species does not continue to create irreversible damage to our planet? Such an approach is not based on changing the environment to suit the species but rather changing the species to suit the environment. What if we can change the fundamental physical and biological needs of our species to ensure the sustainability of our urban and suburban environments?

Other species, have been able to do this for centuries, and not just gradual evolution but rapid evolution occurring over only a few generations. For example the Atlantic cod, which resides of the eastern coast of Canada, has starting mating at age 5 instead of 6 in a period of only two decades. Coincidently, this rapid evolution was triggered by humans through overfishing the species.

While rapid human evolution may seem a distant achievement for a space age like generation, artificial human improvement has been occurring for decades. Hearing aids, artificial limbs, hip transplants, pace makers and even sunglasses are all physical enhancements that have allowed an artificial, non permanent evolution. Such medical and technological breakthroughs have enabled us to meet our basic physiological needs for our own lives, but what about biological improvements that impact on the evolution of future generations?

On a recent episode of Australian ABC’s Hungry Beast, Professor Joel Garreau, from the Arizona State University, stated that not only is such enhancement possible, it is already occurring. ’We are at a turning point in history. For the first time in hundreds of thousands of years, our technologies are not so much aimed outward at modifying our environment in the fashion of fire, clothes, cities, agriculture and space travel. Instead our technologies are increasingly aimed inward at modifying our minds, our memories, our metabolisms, our personalities and our kids. We’re beginning to change what it means to be human’. The program then cover a current research project by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Project’s Agency, who are investigating the human digestive system to explore the expansion of soldier’s diets to include warzone foliage. This is part of their mitochondria focused research to create more efficient and enhanced humans, which have the ability to not only live longer and more efficiently but to also potentially reverse the effects of aging.

While bark and leaves may not be on everyones current desirable menu, current findings in food research suggest that the future of food as we know it is looking dire. As the worlds middle classes expand, demand for meat and grain are set to increase placing further strain on a market which has already seen dramatic price increases. A meal of branches and bugs may not only become a delicacy for western society but an essential source of nutrition.

Adapting humans to live off sustainable resources is one way of minimizing our impact on the planet by reducing the impact of our diverse diets. There is one flaw in this argument – suddenly our natural environment become an even greater commodity and in combination with current consumerist trends, may unintentionally increase our impact on the planet.

That is, unless of course, we are able to eat anything. Instead of adapting our bodies to revert back to more natural sources of nutrition, imagine if we could evolve the species further to thrive off waste products and absorb pollution. Can we create a carbon neutral human?

While this may seem like an unpalatable idea, we have already been able to adapt our bodies from living off plant life to adopting saturated fats, loaded carbohydrates and highly processed foods whilst simultaneously increasing life expectancy through medical advancements. If we are able to make the medical advancements to enable the human digestive system to facilitate a new diet, not to remedy the consequences after the fact, then perhaps the old refuge tip will become the new fine dining strip?

Perhaps then, in speculating the best way to prepare future generations to cope with the altered environment created by the impacts of previous generations, we are best to not define a new environment full of unforeseen consequences (if realized at all) and instead give them a hunger (quite literally!) to thrive in an unpredictable environment.