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Cities Forecast to Expand by Area Equal to France, Germany and Spain Combined in Less Than 20 Years

Urbanization choices to be fundamental to environmental sustainability, said experts at the Planet Under Pressure 2012 Conference in London. An equivalent of a city of 1 million is needed weekly given the population growth trend. 

Planet Under Pressure 2012Unless development patterns change, by 2030 humanity’s urban footprint will occupy an additional 1.5 million square kilometers – comparable to the combined territories of France, Germany and Spain, say experts at a major international science meeting underway in London.

UN estimates show human population growing from 7 billion today to 9 billion by 2050, translating into some 1 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 world cities receive yet another 1 billion additional people. Total forecast urban population in 2050: 6.3 billion (up from 3.5 billion today).

The question isn’t whether to urbanize but how, says Dr. Michail Fragkias of Arizona State University, one of nearly 3000 participants at the conference, entitled “Planet Under Pressure 2012”. Unfortunately, he adds, 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 urbanization specialists will share a wealth of knowledge available to drive solutions.

How best to urbanize was one among many “options and opportunities” under discussion by global environmental change specialists on Day 2 of the four-day conference (March 26-29), convened to help address a wide range of global sustainability challenges and offer recommendations to June’s UN “Rio+20” Earth Summit.

Other leading options and opportunities addressed included green economic development (Yvo de Boer, former Executive Secretary, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), securing food and water for the world’s poorest (Bina Agarwal, Director, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University, India), and planetary stewardship: risks, obstacles and opportunities (Georgina Mace, Professor, Imperial College, London). For a full list of “options and opportunities” conference sessions and topics, see conference website.

Cities Responsible for 70% of CO2 Emissions

Shobhakar Dhakal, Executive Director of the Tokyo-based Global Carbon Project, said reforms in existing cities and better planning of new ones offer disproportionately large environmental benefits compared with other options.

“Re-engineering cities is urgently needed for global sustainability,” said Dr. Dhakal, adding that 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.”

Over 70% of CO2 emissions today relate to city needs. In billions of metric tonnes, urban-area CO2 emissions were estimated at about 15 in 1990 and 25 in 2010, with forecasts of growth to 36.5 by 2030, assuming business-as-usual.

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 time – an estimated 4.2 billion hours in the USA alone in 2005. Estimated cost of New York City’s congestion: US $ 4 billion a year in lost productivity.

An “Internet of things” is forming, he noted – 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.

High-tech ways to improve the efficiency of urban operations and human health and well-being include:

  • Rapid patient screening and diagnostics with digitalized 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 traveler information services and toll road pricing based on traffic, weather and other data;
  • Data gathering and feedback from citizens using mobile phones;
  • And many more.

“Our focus should be on enhancing the quality of urbanization – from urban space, infrastructure, form and function, to lifestyle, energy choices and efficiency,” said Dr. Dhakal.

Care is needed, he adds, to avoid unwelcome potential problems of dense urbanization, including congestion, pollution, crime, the rapid spread of infectious disease and other societal problems – the focus of social and health scientists who featured prominently at the conference.

Said Prof. Karen Seto of Yale University, who with colleagues organized four of the 160 conference sessions at Planet Under Pressure: “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.”

For these reasons, “the planet can’t afford not to urbanize,” said Seto. “People everywhere, however, have increasingly embraced Western styles of architecture and urbanization, which are resource-intense and often not adapted to local climates. The North American suburb has gone global, and car-dependent urban developments are more and more the norm.”

Planet Under Pressure 2012How Humanity Urbanizes to Define the Decades Ahead

Fragkias noted that while there were fewer than 20 cities of 1 million or more a century ago, there are 450 today. While urban areas cover less than five per cent of Earth’s land surface, “the enlarged urban footprint forecast is far more significant proportionally when vast uninhabitable polar, desert and mountain regions, the world bread-basket plains and other prime agricultural land and protected areas are subtracted from the calculation.”

“We have a unique opportunity now to plan for a coming explosion of urbanization 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,” says Roberto Sánchez-Rodríguez, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Riverside.

“It is also important to stress that differences exist in the urbanization process in high-, low- and middle-income countries and 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).”

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