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Cities will need another Germany + France + Spain

The world’s cities will need an additional 1.5 million square kilometres by 2030 – the combined areas of Germany, France and Spain – for their daily needs unless current patterns of development change drastically, according to experts.  

Since 2010, for the first time in history, more people now live in cities than in villages. UN estimates show human population growing from seven billion today to nine billion by 2050, translating into some one million more people expected on average each week for the next 38 years, with most of that increase anticipated in urban centres. And ongoing migration from rural to urban living could see cities receive yet another one billion additional people. Total forecast urban population in 2050: 6.3 billion (up from 3.5 billion today).   

Given this situation, the question isn't whether to urbanise but how, according to Michail Fragkias of Arizona State University, one of nearly 3,000 participants at the Planet Under Pressure conference being held in London March 26-29. The conference has been co-organised by the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme, Diversitas, International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, World Climate Research Programme, Earth System Science Partnership and the International Council for Science.   

Speaking at the conference on Tuesday, Fragkias said, “Today’s ongoing pattern of urban sprawl puts humanity at severe risk due to environmental problems. Dense cities designed for efficiency offer one of the most promising paths to sustainability, and urbanisation specialists have a wealth of knowledge available to drive solutions.”   

Fragkias noted that while there were fewer than 20 cities of one million or more a century ago, there are 450 today. While urban areas cover less than five per cent of the earth's surface, "the enlarged urban footprint forecast is far more significant proportionally when vast uninhabitable polar, desert and mountain regions, the world breadbasket plains and other prime agricultural land and protected areas are subtracted from the calculation."   

In today’s era of climate change due to carbon emissions into the atmosphere, cities are responsible for 70% of all emissions of carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas. Shobhakar Dhakal, executive director of the Tokyo-based Global Carbon Project, said, "Re-engineering cities is urgently needed for global sustainability." Emerging urban areas "have a latecomer's advantage in terms of knowledge, sustainability thinking, and technology to better manage such fundamentals as trash and transportation," he pointed out.   

Addressing climate change therefore demands focusing on urban efficiencies, like using weather conditions and time of day-adjusted toll systems to reduce traffic congestion, for example. Congestion worldwide costs economies an estimated 1 to 3% of GDP – a problem that not only wastes fuel and causes pollution, but wastes time too.   

But there are signs of hope. Dhakal said “an Internet of things – a fast-growing number of high-tech, artificially intelligent, Internet-connected cars, appliances, cameras, roadways, pipelines and more, in total about one trillion in use worldwide today.” Talking about ways to make cities more efficient and less resource-grabbing, experts said high-tech ways to improve the efficiency of urban operations and human health and well-being include:  

Rapid patient screening and diagnostics with digitalised health records;  

Utility meters and sensors that monitor the capacity of the power generation network and continually gather data on supply and demand of electricity;  

Integrated traveller information services and toll road pricing based on traffic, weather and other data;  

Data gathering and feedback from citizens using mobile phones. 

 "Our focus should be on enhancing the quality of urbanisation – from urban space, infrastructure, form and function, to lifestyle, energy choices and efficiency," said Dhakal. At the same time, care is needed to avoid unwelcome potential problems of dense urbanisation, including congestion, pollution, crime, the rapid spread of infectious disease and other social problems. 

Karen Seto of Yale University said, "The way cities have grown since World War II is neither socially or environmentally sustainable and the environmental cost of ongoing urban sprawl is too great to continue. The planet can't afford not to urbanise. People everywhere, however, have increasingly embraced Western styles of architecture and urbanisation, which are resource-intense and often not adapted to local climates.” 

Roberto Sánchez-Rodríguez, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Riverside, said, "We have a unique opportunity now to plan for a coming explosion of urbanisation in order to decrease pressure on ecosystems, improve the livelihoods of billions of people and avoid the occurrence of major global environmental problems and disasters. That process cannot wait. It is also important to stress that differences exist in the urbanisation process in high-, low- and middle-income countries and to reflect them in our strategies. We need to move beyond traditional approaches to planning and be responsive to informal urban growth, to the value of ecosystem services, and to the need of multidimensional perspectives,” social, economic, cultural, environmental, political and biophysical.   

Ultimately, the researchers say, solutions include: 

Planning and investments in public infrastructure that encourage transit and accessibility; 

Better land-use zoning and building standards that increase efficiency and multiple uses ;

Reversing the trend to ever larger homes;

Ending subsidies that promote low density and leapfrog development and discourage compact development, or favour cars at the expense of public transit; 

Improving the quality of inner city schools and addressing other growing urban challenges, such as growing income inequality, segregation and social polarisation, crime rates and heightened health threats including stress; 

Through social marketing, foster demand for efficient styles of living.  

Sybil Seitzinger, executive director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said, "A truly sustainable planet will require cities to think beyond city limits. Everything being brought into the city from outside, food, water, products and energy need to be sourced sustainably. We need to rethink the resource flow to cities."   

Mark Stafford Smith, conference co-chair, said, "A more general theme of the conference is underlined by the urbanisation issue – that much of the planet's future is tied up in interconnected issues, climate change and city design, city resource demands and impacts on rural areas, rural food and water productivity and the ability of cities to continue functioning. The deep intensity of interconnectedness of these issues requires an integrated approach, tackling challenges together rather than each individually, one at a time."   

But how will cities reduce their carbon emissions when countries cannot agree to do so? By forging agreements among city governments, suggest the experts, as has been done in the C40 initiative, a consortium of cities committed to emissions reductions. 

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