Cities help define our global civilisation. For hundreds of years, they have been the hubs around which we organise ourselves politically, commercially and culturally.
But the centuries-old process by which those cities have developed is far from over. Ancient metropolises like Hanoi, Osaka and Beijing continue to expand, while new cities seem to be founded almost every week.
That relentless growth has important implications – and is something a new Shell report says we cannot afford to be complacent about.
The challenge is huge. The United Nations projects that the world’s population will grow from roughly seven billion today to nine billion by the middle of the century – the equivalent of 1.4 million people every week. At the same time, the number of people living in cities is expected to rise from 3.6 billion in 2010 to 6.3 billion in 2050 – with the greatest increase expected in China, India, the USA and sub-Saharan Africa. Of China’s largest 130 cities, meanwhile, more than half are still in the early stages of development.
Why does urbanisation matter? Because well-designed and managed cities can act as powerful engines for economic development and prosperity – and help to nurture innovation and collaboration. But cities that develop poorly affect quality of life, have negative environmental impacts including high greenhouse gas emissions, and can be the source of social and political strife. Crucially, bad urban planning also puts pressure on essential resources like energy, water and food. According to analysis by the United Nations and Shell, demand for all three is already expected to rise by between 40 and 50% by 2030.
That’s why, as municipal leaders gather in Singapore for the World Cities Summit, we must take seriously the challenge posed by accelerating urbanisation.
The Shell Scenarios team has a strong reputation for developing fresh insights into global problems. Their latest report New Lenses on Future Cities, published this week in partnership with the Singaporean government’s Centre for Liveable Cities, identifies a number of areas for action.
The first is urban planning which focuses on the efficient use of resources. The design and layout of a city has a powerful impact on its resource needs. Compact, more densely populated cities like Hong Kong use significantly less energy per person than sprawling cities like Los Angeles. Why? For example, because people live closer to where they shop, work and play – and therefore use less energy to get around. When those compact cities are served by reliable, cleaner transport networks, energy use is reduced even further.
But more compact, better integrated urban planning is just the start of it. There are a host of other things we can do to make our cities more sustainable and ‘liveable’.
We can encourage the use of smaller cars powered by electricity or hydrogen fuel cells, as well as trucks fuelled by liquefied natural gas; cleaner vehicles which are ideally suited to life in compact, more integrated cities and a perfect complement to advanced transport systems. These will take time to reach mass scale, but are already becoming a familiar sight in some cities. In the meantime, cleaner-burning fuels like gas-to-liquids diesel can improve air quality – a major health consideration in urban settings. The use of global positioning technologies to monitor freight transport in and around cities can help managers to task vehicles as efficiently as possible – ensuring that no journey is wasted or duplicated. Integrating water, sewerage, waste and power systems more effectively would allow the recycling of the water and energy they consume. And switching coal-fired power stations to cleaner-burning gas would reduce carbon emissions and improve the quality of our cities’ air.
Another essential aspect is effective leadership. Whether that leadership comes at the national, regional or city level, it needs to be forward-looking, transparent, flexible and informed by a clearly expressed vision. Our cities also need leaders who are good at implementation – at ‘getting things done’ – and who are capable of building the kind of collaborative, cross-sector partnerships which make it possible to take the steps needed.
Truly sustainabIe urban development is not easy. But it can be done. Fifty years ago, Singapore was very different from the city we know today. A quarter of the population of 1.6 million lived below the poverty line, with hundreds of thousands living in slums and squatter camps where public hygiene was poor and diseases like malaria and tuberculosis endemic. But thanks to a decades-long programme of pro-active urban development – including the construction of Singapore Changi airport, the Mass Rapid Transit subway system, and an island-wide system of expressways – the city’s prospects have been transformed. With limited land and natural resources, Singapore has succeeded in creating an environment in which its economy and its people are thriving.
In seeking to learn from Singapore’s example, no one is suggesting there is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model for urban development. Different cities have different requirements, according to their geography, their finances, their political and institutional capacity and their infrastructure.
But while no two cities, and no two development plans, can or should be the same, there are important principles from which we can learn. Above all, we must understand the benefit of collaboration between government, business and civil society. Because it’s only by working together that cities – homes to billions of people – can be the sustainable hubs we need them to be.
Jeremy Bentham is Head of Shell’s Scenarios team.