Cities have a significant impact on climate change but are also potential saviours of the planet. The city consumes vast amounts of fossil fuels and other resources in buildings, transport, and heating and cooling, and produces large quantities of waste and pollution. Yet the city is a continuing spark of ingenuity and innovation with an inspiring capacity to create lower carbon infrastructure and living patterns, offering hope for a sustainable future. Here we canvass the scope for transforming the character of urban design, mobility, and consumption in favour of healthy and planet-friendly activity that could provide benchmarks for cities across the planet, given encouraging governance. It is a tough call, but in offering hope, an exciting one to answer.
Keywords: urban vulnerability, resources grab, climate-resilient cities, urban agriculture, low-carbon mobility, sustainable infrastructure
The city: New challenges and global opportunities
The benefits of living in large human settlements have been recognised for over 6,000 years. Over millennia and through centuries of sea-based mercantilism and industrialisation, cities have been the cradle of culture, trade, learning, economic transformation, art, governance, and innovation.
In 2008, more than half of the world's seven billion people lived in cities. Today, there are more than 500 cities containing over one million inhabitants. By 2050 three-quarters of the estimated global population of nine billion people will live in cities. This is the equivalent of building a new city of 1.4 million people every week. About 95 per cent of that growth will occur in the developing world. Millions of people migrate to cities every week. According to the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WGBU):
In sub-Saharan Africa, two-thirds of all new city-dwellers currently move into informal settlements or slums, and half of them are expected to remain there in the long term. According to UN forecasts, Africa’s population could rise to a total of 4.4 billion people by 2100. If the current urbanisation trends were to continue in Africa, and, for example, 80 per cent of the people in Africa were to live in cities by 2100 – and 60 per cent of these in slums – this would mean about 2 billion people having to live in degrading city districts.
Cities are diverse in shape, size, geography, global connectivity, and culture. Yet urbanisation shares many common characteristics.