As urban areas around the world continue to grow, cities are placing an increasingly heavy burden on our environment. Policymakers should therefore treat resource efficiency as equal in importance to climate policy if they want to move towards a sustainable future, according to a new report from the International Resource Panel.
The Weight of Cities: Resource Requirements of Future Urbanization calls for a new strategy to meet the needs of 21st-century urbanization, one that would result in cities that are low carbon, resource efficient, socially just, and in which people can live healthy lives.
Unless the world’s urban areas make optimal use of their resources, cities will soon demand far more resources than our planet can sustainably provide, placing a huge burden on agriculture, energy, industry and transport. In the next 30 years, 2.4 billion people are likely to move to urban areas, bringing the proportion of the global population living in cities by 2050 to 66 per cent.
The annual amount of natural resources used by urban areas could grow from 40 billion tonnes of raw materials in 2010 to 90 billion tonnes by 2050, an increase of 125 per cent, if changes are not made to how cities are built and designed.
The report, the 25th from the International Resource Panel, an eminent group of experts set up by UN Environment in 2007 to examine natural resource use, was one of two summary reports to be launched at the 9th World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur today.
“There are already far too many people around the world who are already being poisoned by breathing dirty, dangerous air in the cities they live in, and it’s alarming to see that this trend is set to worsen,” said UN Environment chief Erik Solheim.
“We can and need to do far better. We can design better cities, where people can walk or cycle instead of having to use cars, where waste is recycled rather than burned or tossed into landfills, and where everyone can access clean fuels and energy.”
Slightly more than a third of urban growth is expected to come from three countries: India (expected to contribute 404 million new city-dwellers), China (292 million) and Nigeria (212 million). At the same time, currently one in three urban residents lives in a slum or informal settlement, often without access to proper housing or basic services.
The increase in urban population will require the building of new cities and the expansion of existing ones. Building and operating these new cities, and supporting the urban lifestyles of those who live in them, requires billions of tonnes of raw materials, such as fossil fuels, sand, gravel, iron ore, wood and food.
Historically, existing cities have been spreading at a rate of two per cent a year, increasing global urban land use from just below one million square kilometres to 2.5 million in 2050, and putting agricultural land and food supplies at risk.
To achieve a transition to low-carbon, resource-efficient, socially just cities, the report recommends:
- Monitoring the flow of resources entering and leaving the cities to understand the local situation and to help develop resource-efficient strategies.
- Planning cities to have:
- Compact growth, to avoid urban sprawl and so economize on the square kilometres of asphalt, the concrete, the electricity and the water wasted in spread-out cities.
- Better connections by efficient and affordable public transport (e.g., light rail, bus rapid transit).
- Liveable neighbourhoods where design encourages people to walk or cycle.
- Resource-efficient urban components, such as car sharing, electric vehicles and charging point networks, efficient energy, efficient waste and water systems, smart grids, cycle paths, energy-efficient buildings, new heating, cooling and lighting technology, etc.
- Infrastructure for cross-sector efficiency, such as using waste heat from industry in district energy systems and industrial waste materials in construction, such as fly-ash bricks.
- Establishing a new model for city governance and politics that supports imaginative business propositions and experimentation.
The second report launched today, Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Transitions in the ASEAN Region: A Resource Perspective, was produced by UN Environment with scientific input from International Resource Panel member Dr Anu Ramaswami.
It examines future urbanization in the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Indonesia, the Philippines, Viet Nam, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore and Brunei — where 205 million people are expected to move to cities by 2050, resulting in the rapid rise of 200 new small cities or urban areas with populations of fewer than 500,000. This is likely to take place against a backdrop of increasing air pollution and climate risks, and in a region where 73 million people live in slums, 120 million lack access to electricity and 280 million lack clean cooking fuels.
The report says that collaborative governance, at all levels, and long-range planning will be needed to transform the region’s cities. Strategies suggested include:
- Undertaking national and cross-ASEAN urbanization planning to balance economic growth across a range of city sizes and to preserve high-value agricultural land and ecosystem services.
- Promoting compact, mixed-use, accessible and inclusive cities through regional and city planning to reduce land-use planning, streamline infrastructure provisions and promote sustainable mobility (such as public transport, car-sharing, walking and cycling).
- Developing zero-slum cities through land-use planning that prevents slum formation and rehabilitating existing slums in resource-efficient, disaster-resistant, multistorey buildings.
- Promoting resource-efficient, resilient buildings and electricity grids.
- Promoting resource efficiency at the systems level across the city through innovative and profitable exchanges of “waste” energy and materials.
Creativity, Entrepreneurial Spirit to Form the Blueprint of Innovative Cities of the Future
Even as new technologies inspire amazement and awe, revolutionizing the way we live our lives, technology leaders from around the globe who have gathered at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions agree that the key elements to the innovative cities and nations of the future are something much more low tech – creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.
Yossi Vardi, Chairman of International Technologies, Israel, argued that creative human beings are the secret to successful businesses and innovative societies. “The most important thing is the human being, the person. The person is number one, number two and number three. The rest is almost irrelevant,” Vardi observed, “If you find someone that is top talent, hire them … This is really the scarce resource. It’s like in Hollywood and every other industry – there is a creative element. Technology is the enabler, but the real offering is creativity.”
Speaking on the opening day of the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Tianjin, industry experts and technology leaders argued that the foundations of innovative nations – entrepreneurs – are built rather than bred.
While many cities and countries are looking to create their own versions of Silicon Valley and emulate its extraordinary success, Christine Tsai, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, 500 Startups, USA, emphasized the importance of capturing its entrepreneurial spirit instead.
“I don’t think it is realistic to say you want to recreate Silicon Valley, because Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley,” noted Tsai, “I think it is more important to think about what are you are trying to bring from Silicon Valley into your market, to help spur entrepreneurship and build the ecosystem that will help start-ups thrive.”
From manufacturing to medicine and agriculture, Qin Jun, Chairman of Junzi Capital, People’s Republic of China, said that new technologies would allow companies in many traditional industries to enter “uncharted waters”, leveraging data to improve their efficiency. Jun stressed the importance of a conducive environment for the business creatives of tomorrow in China, a country working to foster a new generation of creative entrepreneurs.
“The power of capital will facilitate people down this road,” noted Jun, “Having a dream. A sense of responsibility is also very important; I think that is part of the entrepreneurial DNA.”
Envisioning the innovative societies of the future, Liu Xiao, Senior Vice-President of China Vanke, People’s Republic of China, offered some examples of how new technologies are impacting traditional sectors in significant ways.
“New technologies definitely have an impact on real estate. On several different fronts we are already using artificial intelligence,” remarked Xiao, “We are looking at ‘smart gates’ with sensors that have facial recognition. In real estate there are also wind-, sun-, light- and noise-proof calculations and now there are artificial intelligence (AI) applications that can do these calculations for us.”
To democratize the advantages of new technologies – to ensure the positive impacts of technology are far-reaching and effective, pointed out Ryu Jung-Hee, Partner and Chief Executive Officer of Futureplay, Republic of Korea, technology and artificial intelligence can also be leveraged to solve social problems.
“The biggest problem in South Korean society is that we are facing an ageing society and a lack of labour,” he said, “So I think AI can help solve those problems. In medical services too, [we can use] AI features to fight cancer. Our intelligence can be extended by AI, which means our inequality problems can also be helped.”
Today AI is touted as a magic buzzword, but in the innovative cities and nations of the future, technology leaders believe the technology will become a seamless part of our global existence.
“There have already been a lot of practical applications that happen around AI that we probably don’t even realize, a lot of things to do with curation or smarter services that are tailored towards you and your interests,” pointed out Tsai. “As our technologies develop, AI will become like mobile is already; now, you won’t say you are a mobile company because everything already is mobile, it is just part of the infrastructure.”
Cities Need to Be “Agile” to Capture Opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution
The world is urbanizing and the Fourth Industrial Revolution is transforming life at an unprecedented rate. Cities must be “agile” – able to move quickly and easily – to enable their citizens to thrive. A new World Economic Forum report, Agile Cities: Preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, explains the concept of agility and introduces guidelines for measuring agility in key areas of city life.
From the diverse experience of the Forum’s Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, the report proposes how to assess physical, digital and environmental aspects of agility in eight categories: buildings, land, energy, mobility, IT, security, education and governance.
Alice Charles, Cities leads at the World Economic Forum, said: “The report is meant to provide a starting point for conversations on how city authorities can better prepare for the changes of the Fourth Industrial Revolution while improving urban liveability for citizens. Many cities are already blazing a trail in ways others could emulate.”
The report draws examples of agility from cities around the world, including:
- “Enterprise Districts” in Singapore where zoning is more flexible to allow academia and business to share collaborative spaces and encourage synergy among businesses in different sectors
- An app for integrated mobility in Quito, Ecuador, which will make it easy for users to plan and pay for a single journey, and that uses different modes of transport such as metro, bus, private taxi and bike hire
- Consolidation of separate municipal IT infrastructures in Dubai, with shared services now covering over 90% of employees and 95% of budgets, which has considerably reduced emissions from ICT equipment
- An app in Moscow through which the city government seeks residents’ feedback on urban development issues before making decisions, with over 1.5 million Muscovites already registered.
In an agile city, the government embraces ongoing transformation; planners efficiently rezone land for temporary uses; buildings serve a diverse mix of functions; policing and prevention strategies are smart and data-driven; agencies share and seamlessly redeploy their IT assets; interoperable transport systems are optimized by real-time information; energy networks maximize use of renewables while ensuring secure supply; and the education system quickly adapts to reflect the economy’s changing needs.
The Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization’s Co-Chair, Abha Joshi Ghani, Senior Adviser on Infrastructure, Public-Private Partnerships and Guarantees, World Bank, said: “Already 54% of the world’s population is urban, and it’ll be over two-thirds by 2050. Cities are engines of economic growth and absolutely central to achieving global aspirations such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement on Climate Change.”
Co-Chair Carlo Ratti, Director of SENSEable City Lab at MIT, added: “We know agility is important for cities, but what does it really mean? This report introduces a framework for assessing it, and shares many examples of new and emerging initiatives which can potentially be adapted by other cities.”
Why public transit is a key economic issue for growing cities
We’d love to take our daily commute for granted. Except, we can’t. It is essential that we continue to make public transportation as efficient as possible for commuters.
Over the decades, as a nation we have put investing in our transportation infrastructure, particularly our bus and rail systems, on the back burner. The result: Today’s public transit backlog sits at $90 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. This is a missed opportunity to make our public transportation systems more efficient and our cities more productive, and it has serious economic implications.
For instance, a lack of investment in our public transportation infrastructure costs the U.S. economy $340 billion in revenue over a six-year period, according to the study, “The Economic Cost of Failing to Modernize Public Transportation.” The study was conducted by the Economic Development Research Group Inc. for APTA.
“Our failure as a nation to address America’s public transit modernization needs has wide-ranging negative effects,” says APTA president and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas, “because lost time in travel makes a region’s economy less productive.”
Failing to meet growing public transit needs
As the number of U.S. workers continues to rise, so do the pressures on all areas of our infrastructure.
Since 1995, the U.S. has seen a 42 percent rise in public transit miles traveled. Despite that, needed improvements to our bus and rail assets have not kept pace with growth, the study concludes. Furthermore, the study shows how, as the U.S. fails to invest in the upkeep and maintenance in the nation’s public transit assets, it leads to service interruptions and lost time, which leads to lost wages.
Dorval R. Carter Jr., president of the Chicago Transit Authority, oversees a legacy rail system that’s more than 100 years old, and faces the challenge of fixing or replacing aging infrastructure.
“Parts of our rail system date back to the late 1800s,” Carter says, “we are facing an unmet — and growing — capital need of nearly $13 billion and meeting it has become even more challenging given funding constraints not only at the federal level, but especially at the state and local levels.”
The impact of public transit on local economies
Service interruptions and delays because America has not kept up with transit investments have a direct and immediate effect on the economy. If workers can’t get to work on time, it affects their productivity.
When an aging road and rail system adds time and delays to commutes, that puts the brakes on economic output.
“Based on recent surveys of our riders in Central Ohio, we know 70 percent of our customers rely on our service to reach work,” says Joanna Pinkerton, president and CEO of the Central Ohio Transit Authority. “This is just one example of why it is vital to continue investment in public transportation infrastructure to support residents and the economy.”
Pinkerton adds that over the next 30 years, Central Ohio’s public transit system will have to evolve to prepare for 1 million additional residents and 600,000 jobs.
The quality of a city’s public transportation system is an important factor for companies that are looking to expand or relocate. For example, in 2014, Atlanta’s public transportation system played a role in State Farm Insurance’s bid to locate 8,000 new jobs there. One year ago, when Amazon asked cities to create proposals for its second headquarters, the online retailer indicated that it wanted to hear from cities with access to public transit.
The good news is, Congress has allocated a spending increase for the 2018 fiscal year budget for public transit.
“While this is a positive step forward in helping to address the nation’s aging public transit infrastructure,” Skoutelas says, “this momentum must be maintained by providing similar funding levels for 2019.”
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