Currently, 5 in 10 of the world’s population live in urban areas. By 2050, experts predict that number will have risen to 7 in 10 people. Over eight billion of us will live in or within a mile of a city by the middle of the century.
This population explosion will see demand for municipal water increase by hundreds of billions of cubic meters, on top of the incredible amount of extra energy that will be needed to provide power for everyone. As our metropolises creak at the seams, we will need to develop ways to try and limit consumption, mitigate the detrimental effects for the environment, and maintain a good quality of life for inhabitants.
There has been much work done on developing clean energy to cope with the likely increase in demand in a way that’s environmentally friendly. There are numerous competitions to encourage green entrepreneurs to find a way to solve the issue. The London Mayor’s “London Leaders” scheme, for example, has found and helped such schemes as Bio Bean, which uses waste coffee grounds to make bio diesel. Microbiologists in Canada are also using genetically engineered bacteria to clean waste and convert the resulting product into energy, solving two issues at once.
However, many believe such schemes to be ultimately insignificant, or, at least, insufficient. American futurist Alex Steffen, for one, notes that “in order to provide the kind of energy that it would take for eight billion people to live in cities that are even somewhat like the cities that those of us in the global north live in today, we would have to generate an absolutely astonishing amount of energy. It may be possible that we are not even able to build that much clean energy.”
Steffen and others point to a different solution, advocating instead a complete rethink to the way we build cities.
Cities as we know them suffer from a chronic lack of planning. Some, such as London, have risen and sprawled out over centuries, while others like Sao Paulo have been created in a rapid burst of growth, with little continuity and limited attention paid to energy efficiency, if any. In the future, cities must be planned in a sustainable way. It is vital that new and existing cities are built or rebuilt in such a way as to dramatically reduce emissions. This is already being done around the world. One driver of this is the financial crisis, which saw a massive fall off in the number of building programs. One of the hidden benefits, if only for the environment, was that it slowed down the torrent of building programs, allowing for more planning and consideration of the potential impact of projects. Much of it is also down to increased awareness and the public’s recognition of the environmental damage and the impact it has on their quality of life, which in turn drives political will to implement change.
There are a number of environmental benefits inherent to city living and a dense population. Per person, a dense population tends to mean lower emissions. Everything needed is within close proximity, which reduces the need for cars and the use of public transport. Cities are increasingly focusing more on improving walkability in order to encourage this, and building new towns in this vein, as well as revisiting existing road layouts. A number of cities are trying to create a culture that moves away from cars. If you build for cars, you get cars, if you build for pedestrians, you get pedestrians. Cities are increasingly building separate roads for car, bicycles, and pedestrians, and many such as London and Paris offer bicycle hire schemes. Copenhagen, now seen as the model for cities of the future, has undergone extensive pedestrianization. Cycling has doubled in the city since 1990. Areas of New York have implemented similar schemes, most notably on Broadway.
As we move forward, it is not good enough to simply cover a city in greenery. It must be ensured that there is an infrastructure in place to make sure it serves a purpose, that rainwater is captured and waste matter turned back into soil for example.
People increasingly looking to the neighbourhood they live in to cater for their needs will have other effects. It is already resulting in ecodistricts being built - whole sustainable neighbourhoods in major cities. It is also helping to create a ‘sharing’ community, which is being driven by new platforms, technologies, and crowd sourcing. People are looking more and at the surplus capacities of the products they buy and the limited amount of time they actually use their possessions for, and choosing to rent them instead. This is driving a transformation of products into services operating in a shared space, which is lowering consumption.
For sustainable cities to be the future, it is vital that everybody play their part, including businesses, the public, and governments. There have been numerous innovations that go some way to solve the issues. Electric vehicles, LED streetlights, and many more. It is vital that city planners incorporate these, and that everyone utilizes them to their full capability.