Megacities may be sustainable


Over the last 50 years urban populations have exploded, causing a slew of environmental and social problems. However, many community planners see the world’s urbanization not as a threat, but as a powerful force for addressing climate change and building a sustainable future.

"Cities offer the most potential to face our environmental problems, and I believe that we can do it. We just have to do it now."

— Herbert Girardet, Director of Programs, World Future Council

The United Nations (UN) projects that sometime this year over 50% of the world’s population will be living in cities. That’s an increase of roughly 2.5 billion people since 1950. By 2020, the UN projects that 5 billion people will be living in cities. As this rapid urbanization continues, especially in developing countries such as China, India and Brazil, urban planners are trying to help cities become more environmentally and economically sustainable.

"Certainly the city, if it is reconfigured in the right way, could become a very sustainable habitat for humanity," says Herbert Girardet, director of programs at the World Future Council and an expert on sustainable cities. "But we need radical new departures in urban planning and priorities for urban authorities for the city to ultimately become the solution."

Girardet has written 9 books, produced 50 documentaries and advised cities such as London and Vienna on the value of sustainable urban development. Now China is his focus. With plans to build around 400 new cities over the next 20 years, the country desperately needs to think about environmentally-friendly ways to grow, he says.

The eco-city of Dongtan may be the place where this change begins. Girardet is senior advisor to the project, which will be located on Congming Island in Shanghai Province. The city will integrate the most important aspects of sustainable design into its layout: small villages connected by bicycle paths, a robust public transportation system, a network of distributed renewable energy systems, local farming and a method to recycle all waste output. The idea, says Girardet, is to create a zero-waste city with a "circular metabolism."

"When you look at natural systems, basically nature does not know waste. All wastes…end up as nutrients for future growth," he says. "We need to learn from nature for the way we organize ourselves in terms of human affairs."

According to research by the USAID China Environmental Health Project, Chinese cities produce around 190 million tons of trash each year. That number could rise to around 480 million tons per year by 2030. Because of the environmental and health issues associated with poor waste management, the Chinese government has called for a 10% increase in the efficiency of resource use by 2020. Even with such measures, however, the problem will need to be tackled from the ground up. Designing cities like Dongtan may be a more effective solution, especially as China urbanizes so quickly.

The plan is to move 25,000 residents onto the 86 square kilometer island by 2010 and steadily grow the population to 500,000 by 2030. If it proves successful, says Girardet, the eco-city will hopefully serve as a model for Chinese officials as they manage the country’s growth.

While Dongtan will integrate an impressive list of renewable energy technologies and sustainable planning methods, changes to existing cities may be a bit more subtle in the short term. The goal now, says Michael Kinsley, a senior consultant at the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Sustainable Cities program, is to get community planners to change the way they think about the development process.

The problem, he says, is that most cities working toward "smart growth" have a team of elected officials and consultants looking at environmental and social issues and another team looking at economic issues. Often, the two teams don’t talk to one another, which can start conflicts later in the planning process. Kinsley’s first order of business is to get all stakeholders collaborating to ensure that sustainability and economic progress go hand in hand.

"That’s really what sustainability is about when you cut down through the rhetoric about it," he says. "What it’s ultimately about is the way in which you make decisions. It’s not a list of things you ought to do in a community, as much as it is a way of thinking about what the community ought to be."

There are many agreed-upon components of a sustainable city: Better public transit, bicycle and walking routes, energy-efficient buildings, renewable energies and local agriculture. But not every city will integrate those components the same way. Instead of handing planners a standard list of action items, says Kinsley, the goal should be to "help community leaders think about what their principal values are," and then work from those values.

"People will only be willing to go the extra mile if they feel they have a stake in the process," says Richard Levine, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Cities at the University of Kentucky. "This is an extension of the democratic idea."

If cities are to take a systems-level approach to development, change needs to happen at the very beginning stages of planning. Levine sees some progress in this area, but he doesn’t see it happening fast enough. The technical details will never be fully worked out until the cultural, environmental and economic values of a community become consistent.

"We have yet to build a truly sustainability city. Some cities are starting to think very hard about this, but we’ve got a long way to go," he says. "If this starts happening in a meaningful way, there’s probably no stopping it. Once cities see that it can be done in an economically-feasible manner, they’ll want to do it too. But we need to have one or two examples to start the momentum and get us off the treadmill we’re all bound to right now."

Indeed, if all goes well, Dongtan could help build that momentum and speed up the process. But there is no time to wait around, say most experts. By many accounts the window for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is about ten years; therefore, because of the large amount of time it takes to restructure cities, drastic changes to urban planning need to happen immediately, says Girardet.

"There are some voices of doom out there who say it’s too late, but I cannot accept that notion," he says. "Cities offer the most potential to face our environmental problems, and I believe that we can do it. We just have to do it now."

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