Creating the Sustainable Urban Revolution

Andrew Steer

A population wave is heading for the world’s cities, and we need to be ready. More than 2 billion people are expected to stream into urban areas by 2050. Making sure these growing cities are economically vibrant and environmentally sustainable is going to require a new kind of development.

But cities around the globe are likely to spend $3 trillion more than they need on infrastructure over the next 15 years simply by building 21st century communities as if they were 20th century communities. This encompasses lots of superhighways for lots of personal vehicles to drive to lots of distant energy-inefficient suburbs, resulting in less productivity, more air pollution and higher greenhouse gas emissions.

There is a better way, and it’s already happening, as smart city leaders realize the old ways of urban development do not work for business, for citizens, or for the environment. Rather than building sprawling, car-dependent cities, these leaders recognize the benefits of creating compact, connected communities with public transport as an essential component.

The need is urgent. By mid-century, two-thirds of the global population will live in cities, and 90% of that urban growth will be in developing countries. That means there will be 2.5 billion more people living in urban areas than there are now. China alone is expected to see 70% of its population – one billion people – living in cities by 2030.

Cities must be part of the solution to the climate problem.

This extraordinary urban growth is taking place against a backdrop of economic transformation. The global economy is expected to grow by more than half over the next 15 years, and rapid technological advances are likely to continue to change businesses and lives. Approximately US$90 trillion is expected to be invested in three sectors: urbanization, land use, and energy infrastructure. This is one of the main findings of a new report, The New Climate Economy, which is the flagship product of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. (World Resources Institute was one of eight research institutions that contributed to the report’s findings.) These infrastructure investments will shape growth patterns for the 21st century and beyond.

Over the same 15-year period, the need to dramatically reduce global greenhouse gas emissions will be critical. If climate-warming emissions continue on their present trajectory, the world will lock in a global temperature rise of more than 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. Cities currently produce more than 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions, so designing lower-carbon urban landscapes would help curb global temperatures. Any delay will make it harder and costlier to shift to a low-carbon pathway.

Cities must be part of the solution to the climate problem. Technology and better understanding of policies and design can create urban areas that are bigger in population, but have smaller carbon footprints. They can also be more compact than some sprawled urban areas of the last century.

For example, road transport is one of the least efficient economic sectors in cities. Roads can cover one-fifth of a city’s surface, but operate at capacity just 5% of the time. Cars are in use only four% of the time; much of it stuck in traffic or searching for parking. And yet, the number of privately owned cars is expected to double from one billion now to two billion by 2030.

But there are encouraging trends in urban transport. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) leads to better use of limited road space, with dedicated bus lanes, pre-boarding ticketing, and custom-designed stations. BRT systems provide a faster, cheaper and cleaner mode of public transport that especially benefits the expanding middle class in the developing world. These systems are easing transport in 181 cities around the globe, up from 45 cities in 2002. Car- and bike-sharing and car-free zones also help.

More sustainable cities can also save money. This compact, connected approach to urbanization could cut infrastructure capital requirements by more than US$3 trillion in the next 15 years, according to the New Climate Economy Report.

These benefits are not confined to the developed world. The report found that countries at all levels of income now have the opportunity to build in lasting economic growth while reducing the risks from climate change. Structural and technological changes in the global economy make this possible, along with opportunities for greater economic efficiency. Capital for the necessary infrastructure investments is available, but unlocking it will take strong political leadership and credible, consistent policies.

Cities have the potential to reduce annual emissions by eight gigatons by 2050 – equivalent to half the annual emissions from worldwide coal use.

Some mature cities have taken this route. Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hong Kong and Singapore have all shown that with more efficient design and sustained investment in public transport, urban economies can grow while dramatically cutting greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. The numbers tell the story: Stockholm reduced emissions by 35% from 1993 to 2010, while its economy grew 41 percent.

Even sprawling mega-cities have the potential to shift to a more sustainable model. In car-dependent Houston, the argument for change is simple: city leaders found that companies have struggled to attract the most talented workers because prospective employees want to live in a place with an attractive urban core and strong multi-mode transport networks. As Houston Mayor Annise Parker has said, “At some point, it’s not enough to keep grabbing the suburbs and roping them in. You’ve got to make the system as a whole function, and you do things that bring people back to the inner core.”

Momentum for better cities is building. A global Compact of Mayors, launched at the UN Climate Summit in September, highlights the central role cities can play in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Already, cities with voluntary targets are on track to reduce emissions by 454 megatons by 2020. Cities have the potential to reduce annual emissions by eight gigatons by 2050 – equivalent to half the annual emissions from worldwide coal use.

To encourage this trend, we need to put the right policies in place and increase finance for sustainable, compact cities that have people, not cars, at their cores. By doing so, we can make urban areas more productive, make streets safer and improve the quality of the air people breathe. Such bedrock benefits should create the political will to make these changes a reality.

With the vision to plan for more compact and well-designed cities, urban leaders can ensure that their growing populations are able to get where they need to go and enjoy the advantages of a thriving urban center, while setting a course for sustainable economic development. A new wave of sustainable development for cities is building – be part of it!


Dr.Andrew Steer is the President and CEO of the World Resources Institute

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