Cities rising to the challenge?

Sheila Moorcroft, Research Director, Shaping Tomorrow

Cities account for the vast majority of Green House Gas emissions and contain more than half the world’s populations: they can also be relatively, ie per capita more environmentally friendly. As cities continue to grow larger and more numerous, finding new ways to make them more sustainable, better places to live and work is both a challenge and an opportunity. It might also be the spur to greater ‘city-state type’ independence.

What is changing?
We are living in the first ever urban century – more of us live in towns and cities than in rural areas. And the move to the city continues. By 2050 an estimated 5 billion of us will be urban / city dwellers. In India and China alone that reflects an increase of 700 million moving to cities.

As a result, cities are getting larger and more numerous. China already has over 150 cities of more than 1 million inhabitants, compared with 9 in America and 25 in Europe. By 2025 that number is expected to have risen to about 220.

But the trend applies not only in emerging economies. In the West, many cities’ suburbs are emptying as young professionals and older citizens head for the centre looking for urban lifestyles with services, transport and jobs within easy, and walkable reach. In the USA, as much as 11% of suburban housing could stand empty.

Why is this important?
Although cities account for the vast majority of Green House gases, relatively they can be less polluting per capita as a result of greater population / housing density, more public transport smaller dwellings. However, there are already huge variations both between and within cities on carbon emissions and other measures. Some of the lowest emitters are to be found in Nepal, India and Bangladesh with less than ½ ton of carbon; the worst include Rotterdam, Denver and Sydney with about 17 tons per year. Asian and Latin American cities at present also have lower per capita emissions than those in Europe or America. Maintaining that differential is critical if we are to Wealth and green can go together: Singapore, for example, has been designated the greenest city in Asia, when compared with 21 others on eight factors such as energy, transport and emissions.

The Eco-cities project is looking at different approaches to making cities more liveable and healthier, with lower carbon emissions and reduced congestion. The emergence of these and other new cities provides an opportunity to apply new approaches to city design. Songdo described as an aerotropolis, and built from scratch near Seoul’s Incheon airport, is said to have a carbon footprint 1/3 of that of other cities.

Some of the trends we discussed in the Trend Alert 2030: End of the road for driving? using smart city technology, new approaches to food production and new forms of transport will enable fundamental change and provide opportunities for investment and new businesses.

New research has indicated that location is a critical factor in job acceptance for 64% of those who could be described as top talent or elite knowledge workers. Companies located in cities which are good to live in, offer diversity of culture, character and opportunity will win.

New technologies, especially smart phones, are enabling consumers to engage with businesses and services in their locality in new ways, as discussed in the Trend Alert Mobile Retailing . Mapping and checking everything from crime to pollution levels and transport or bike friendliness is part of the decision process for finding a city home. The incentive to improve local amenities and air quality etc is growing. (see also Pollution and health).

Urbanisation is a major global challenge: it also provides a significant opportunity to invest in doing things differently – cleaner, smarter, healthier. As individual cities compete for business, become larger and their significance greater, they may also begin to flex their muscles in new ways. They may become more independent, more willing to set their own agendas to meet their own visions – and not just on green issues, they may behave more like city states.


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