Mastering Our Urban Future

Read Time:4 Minute, 6 Second YORK – By the end of this century, ten billion people will inhabit our planet,
with 8.5 billion living in cities. This could be the stuff of nightmares. But, with
sufficient political will, vision, and creativity – along with some simple,
practical policy changes – we may be able to create cities of dreams.

Cities are hubs of economic and social power. They drive national and global
development by concentrating skills, ideas, and resources in a single location. But
rapid urban development comes at a heavy cost. As cities expand, they swallow up
land that would otherwise be used for food production. They drain water supplies,
account for almost 70% of global energy use, and generate more than 70% of
greenhouse-gas emissions.

If global growth is to be sustainable and equitable, we will need to alter the
balance between rapid urbanization and the unrelenting consumption of resources that
it fuels. This is a main goal of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, which
has warned of the unprecedented pressures that economic growth will impose in coming
decades on infrastructure (especially transportation), housing, waste disposal
(especially of hazardous substances), and energy supplies.

The battle to keep the world’s cities – and thus the global economy – both dynamic
and sustainable can be won by developing innovative ways to consume our limited
resources, without diminishing them or degrading the delicate ecological systems on
which they depend. To achieve this, the world must meet six broad challenges.

First, we must change the way we design cities. Sustainability must be central to
all urban planning, particularly in coastal cities that will soon face the ravaging
effects of climate change. Denser cities use land more efficiently, reduce the need
for private cars, and increase the quality of life by making space for parks and
nature. Likewise, tightly integrated mass-transit systems reduce greenhouse-gas
emissions dramatically.

Second, we must rethink how we design and operate buildings so that they use less
energy – or, better still, generate energy. Buildings are responsible for
substantial CO2 emissions, owing to the materials used in their construction, their
cooling and heating requirements, and auxiliary functions such as water supply,
wastewater, and solid-waste disposal. Our building codes need to promote
energy-efficient engineering and construction technologies, which can be supported
by tax incentives and stricter regulations. With almost 30% of city dwellers in the
Asia-Pacific region living in slums, one of our greatest tests will be to improve
their living conditions without wreaking havoc on the environment.

The third challenge is to alter citizens’ transport habits. This means shifting from
private cars to public transportation, and from road to rail. Indeed, wherever
possible, we should try to reduce the need to travel at all. Transport systems that
favor cars and trucks cause accidents, pollution, and chronic congestion. Moreover,
the transport sector accounted for 23% of all energy-related CO2 emissions in 2004,
and it is the fastest growing source of emissions in developing countries. Instead,
we need to integrate transportation, housing, and land use, encourage reliance on
public transportation, and make our streets pleasant and safe for walking
(especially for women and the disabled).

The fourth challenge is to change how we produce, transport, and consume energy.
This includes creating more efficient energy systems and increasing our investment
in renewable sources (which will, one hopes, create jobs in the process). We can
also encourage households to consume less energy, and companies to reduce the amount
of energy that they waste.

Fifth, we must reform how we manage water resources and water infrastructure, so
that this precious resource can be re-used several times, and on a city-wide scale.
This requires us to integrate the various aspects of water management, such as
household supply, rainwater harvesting, wastewater treatment and recycling, and
flood-control measures.

Finally, we must change the way we manage solid waste so that it becomes a resource,
not a cost. In many developing countries, 60-80% of solid waste is organic, with
open dumping causing excessive amounts of methane to enter the atmosphere.
Cash-strapped local governments spend 30-40% of their budgets on waste management
but derive little in return. Yet, with some simple technological and design
improvements – aimed, for example, at achieving higher rates of composting and
recycling – 90% of this waste could be converted into something useful, such as
biogas and resource-derived fuel.

These six steps require a comprehensive and coordinated change in behavior, and will
require government at all levels to cooperate, invest at scale, share ideas,
replicate best practices, and plan for the long term. It is a monumental and
daunting challenge, but not an impossible one. If it can be achieved, the world may
yet get the urban future that it deserves.

Noeleen Heyzer is Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive
Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

Project Syndicate

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