Urban Sustainability: A Brief Introduction

Are sustainable cities the key to ensuring the planet’s survival?

It has been predicted that by 2050, the global human population will have reached almost 10 billion people. This is staggering in itself, but becomes even more prevalent when you consider that in 1950 that number was only around 2.5 billion. That’s around a 750% increase in just 100 years, which is terrifying, let alone mind-boggling.

Not only does this mean that humans are going to have to get far more used to a lack of personal space, but we’re also going to need to find new ways to accommodate and feed everybody, all the while contending with rapidly dwindling natural resources.

Of those 10 billion people predicted to be alive in 2050, around 70% of them will be living in cities and other urban areas.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds like a recipe for ecological disaster; we’re all too familiar with the footage of the deathly smogs that regularly suffocate cities like Beijing, Paris, and London. It’s true that if we carry on globally consuming at the rate we do currently, we’ll most likely have choked ourselves to death by the end of the century. The situation in China has become so bad that 12% of their entire GDP is now set aside to deal with health issues related to air pollution.

The most effective solution to this problem would be to simply accept that we’ve had a really nice run of it over the last 200 years or so, recognise how badly we screwed things up, and go back to living off candlelight. But you and I both know that’s never going to happen. Modern humans are just far too comfortable, not to mention stubborn.

A far more practical solution exists in the form of urban sustainability initiatives. The core aim of these plans, as stated in a 2015 report by the European Environment Agency, is ‘to find a way of delivering greater value and more services with fewer inputs. That means developing more productive ways of using resources throughout their life cycle in order to decouple economic growth from resource use and its environmental impact.’ In short, we reduce our strain on the planet while still enjoying a high standard of living.

So how exactly do you go about transforming the most environmentally damaging spaces in the world to ones that are clean and resource-efficient?

Ditch the Cars for Energy-efficient Public Transport.

With millions of people commuting to cities for work from the suburbs each day, cars remain the chief villain for urban greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Extreme congestion has led to morning gridlock becoming a common enduring image in cities all around the world, with mile upon mile of static vehicles needlessly burning through fuel and polluting the air.

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It would be extreme and unrealistic to expect a complete ban on car use in inner city areas, but there are ways that we could encourage more widespread use of alternative transit such as cycling, public transport and, you know, walking. Redeveloping certain city districts to be car free is one option, as well as developing safe-cycle zones that are as easy to navigate as city roads. Not only would this clean up the air, it would also do wonders for public health.

Most essential, though, will be the investment in new forms of renewable-powered public transport such as electric buses and trams, in a similar vein to Gothenburg’s ElectriCity scheme. Having regular, efficient services, again on car-free routes to speed up transit, would provide huge benefits across social, environmental, and economic lines.

Fewer cars on the road would also mean more space available for culturally enriching events, residential areas, and green spaces, as well as a dramatic fall in noise pollution which drives many, including yours truly, round the bend.

Accelerate the Transition to Renewables

Use of energy from renewable sources still only accounts for an average of between 10-20% in the world’s major economies. Fossil fuel use, though declining, is still far and away the major choice. And, let’s be clear, it is a choice.

A city that runs on 100% renewable energy is not as unrealistic as you might assume. For the last few years the city of Burlington, in the US state of Vermont, has been almost completely energy independent, with its power derived from a combination of Biomass (43%), Hydroelectric (33%), Wind (23%), and Solar (1%), all produced within city limits.

Supplying a city with a population of just 43,000 is one thing, but is it feasible in a city of millions? Neale Lunderville, the general manager of Burlington Electrical Department, thinks it is, believing it to be only a matter of shifting our perspective, ‘You have to step back from looking at the size of the cities, and look at the technology itself. We’re seeing a massive change, a revolution in energy.’

Lunderville attests that the current system, wherein energy is derived primarily from a single, centralised hub, is out of date, and that the way forward is to look into smaller energy hubs that supply power to just a few city blocks, helped on with smart building designs, made possible by the increasingly sophisticated Internet of Things (IOT), that regulate usage and feed any leftover power back in to the grid.

Rolling out a Burlington-style system on a mass scale is enormously ambitious, but with the right minds behind it, it’s certainly not impossible.

Sprawl vs Growing Smart

There are so many reasons that make low-density sprawl such a huge issue, so many in fact that I’ll have to cover them in more depth in a later blog post, but for now we’ll have to make do with a very brief overview.

Sprawl refers to the phenomenon in which people, mainly middle-to-high earners, jump ship from the central urban core and relocate to the metropolitan periphery – in other words, the suburbs. These areas are characterised by disproportionately high land consumption to population density, as well as a wasteful use of resources in the building of new roads, schools, sewer and power lines that will ultimately only be used by a tiny proportion of the population. It also decimates the surrounding environment and does irreversible damage to biodiversity.

Sprawl necessitates the continued use of cars since almost every facet of living becomes categorically separated by miles of land, with few essential services within walking distance. This is only one of the reasons that an individual living in a sprawl area can create up to 10x more annual GHG emissions than someone living in an urban centre. That’s a hell of a heavy price to pay for the sake of comfort and ‘security’.

Sprawl also has the added effect of segregating and isolating us across economic, ethnic, and generational lines. This prevents us from engaging in the kind of cultural cross-fertilization that makes a society flourish, and instead leaves us suspicious, fearful and disdainful of those we perceive to be different.

But there is another problem that first needs to be addressed before we can even begin to combat sprawl: urban gentrification.

The act of bulldozing housing in poorer areas and replacing it with luxury apartment blocks is an issue that is prevalent in cities all around the world. By all means we should revitalize run-down areas, but the conscious act of pricing out ‘undesirables’, in many cases poor families who have called those areas home for generations, is deplorable, and has to end.

Cities will never be sustainable if they are inaccessible to a large proportion of society. Segregation across socio-economic lines is dangerous; it pushes people to the margins of society, making them feel abandoned, hopeless, and in their desperation forces them to resort to crime. Creating vibrant neighborhoods, in which accommodation for the middle and upper classes is balanced with affordable housing, with similar aesthetic design to negate perceptions of social worth, is vital.

Welcome Nature Back In To Our Concrete Jungles

When designed well, cities can be beautiful things. They’re a testament to human ingenuity and have inspired some of our greatest achievements in art, music, literature, and technology. As impressive as they are, though, they’re also the main reason that, as a species, we’ve become largely dissociated with nature. Cities are artificially created environments, and their primary function, whether we like it or not, is economic.

Now, economic prosperity and environmental conservation aren’t exactly close bedfellows. As urban density grows the demand for space increases, which may not bode well for inner city green spaces, which unscrupulous property developers are more likely to regard as empty land rather than a vital part of the city fabric.

But vital they are. In addition to helping to clean up the air and keeping cities cool amid rising temperatures, abundant green spaces have been shown to provide mental health benefits by reducing stress and offering a welcome reprieve from concrete claustrophobia. It is up to local governments to ultimately decide whether short-term economic gain is preferable to the long-term well-being of residents and the surrounding environment.

By green spaces we don’t just mean an increase in the number of public parks. Rooftop gardens, green buildings, and inner city organic permaculture farms could all play a role in welcoming nature back into our concrete jungles. In the latter especially there is huge potential for creating socially engaged projects, owned and operated by the public.

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Growing our own food within the confines of the city reduces the overall carbon footprint by lessening the need for long miles of food transportation, and additionally allows for the urbanised population to re-discover their love and appreciation for nature, thus reducing the sense of apathy (conscious or not) to environmental issues that results from urban detachment.

Public Awareness and Consensus Building

It’s easy to see why many people scoff and dismiss such ideas as a naïve pipe-dream. In order to be successful these plans will require us to radically rethink the ways in which we go about our everyday lives on a mass scale, from ditching cars to conscious recycling and energy conservation. Creatures of habit we may be, but there is evidence to suggest that, given the right tools and education, people are willing to go greener.

The city of Vancouver is already reaping the rewards of its Greenest City Action Plan initiative, and is well on its way to becoming one of North America’s leading sustainable cities. The key factor of its success has been the co-operation and engagement between Vancouver’s citizens and its city authority, with members of the public being directly involved with the planning and implementation of the project.

We humans can be a stubborn bunch, and generally dislike being told what to do, but here we see there is far more of a willingness to change when we are allowed to play a decisive role in shaping our own future.

What this shows is a demand for open discourse and transparency, without which long-term urban sustainability may not be achievable. Yolande Kakabadse, the International President of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), puts it brilliantly when she states that ‘leaders in cities have to approach individuals to make them partners; it cannot be done from the top down. People have to embrace solutions and feel that they are part of a new world.’

Challenges

One of the key challenges facing the implementation of these ideas is that such plans require an enormous amount of initial investment, which, in the current global climate, may not be seen as a universal necessity, economically speaking at least. Convincing governments to splash the cash is as difficult as it sounds, especially when in relation to environmental matters – you only have to look at the number of climate change deniers currently sitting in the U.S. senate, not to mention the obstinance of a certain commander-in-chief, to understand just how tough this is.

Lobbying local governments to push for more funds may help, but more important will be to increase awareness and create a more vocal public demand for these ideas to be rolled out on a mass scale. This will play a huge role in steering private investors toward more sustainable ventures, potentially picking up on the shortfalls of government budgets.

Perhaps most vital, though, will be the careful planning and implementation of these transformations; the Nigerian capital of Lagos has seen its population swell dramatically, going from a population of 200,000 to 2 million in the space of just two generations, with many of its inhabitants living in impoverished slums. The development of new infrastructure that not only reduces GHG emissions, but also enhances quality of life on a universal scale, will be the key marker upon which urban sustainability initiatives will be judged.

It isn’t hyperbolic to state that our future survival may well rest on the attitude we take towards developing sustainable cities. So let’s bury our cynicism and instead embrace a positive, prosperous future. We know the technology to make it happen already exists, it’s now just a matter of urgency in prodding our governments into action towards a new and clean industrial revolution that will confine those dark satanic smogs to history.

 

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