For centuries, cities have always attracted a lot of people primarily for commercial reasons. By their strategic locations, some cities have become key cogs in trade and continue to attract development. Incidentally, cities generate about 80 per cent of the global GDP. It is estimated that in the coming decades, 90 per cent of urban expansion will be in the developing world. For reasons explained below, sustainability should be front and centre in planning for this expansion.
The threat of climate change
One of the biggest threats to the comfort of life on the planet is climate change. Rising sea levels, rising temperatures and the unpredictability in rainfall patterns are just a few effects. The United Nations estimates that cities occupy about 3 per cent of the Earth’s land but account for between 60 to 80 per cent of energy consumption and at least 70 per cent of carbon emissions. Through our activities like industrialization, construction, and transport, we emit a lot of greenhouse gases.
This is even more so if our urban lifestyles are supported by the burning of fossil fuels to produce the needed energy for these activities. Incidentally, these challenges provide massive opportunities for planners and built environment professionals to take a second look at how the city functions and find ways of reducing carbon emissions. Carbon-neutrality and smart city functionality are just two principles around which we can plan more sustainable cities.
More than 55% of the world’s population lives in cities, according to the United Nations. By the year 2050, two-thirds of all humanity will live in cities. All these numbers mean that cities will continue to grow. With this growth comes challenges like congestion and overcrowding. Take for instance the fact that 828 million people are estimated to live in slums, and the number is only expected to rise.
This trend has to be reversed, or at least controlled. We need to take proactive approaches to the planning of our cities. Decent and affordable housing, sanitation, and healthcare facilities are an absolute necessity around which new plans for cities should be centred. Too many lives are at stake and we can ill afford not to adequately plan for the housing needs of urban dwellers.
The widening inequality gap
There are increasing reports of growing inequality in cities the world over. Economically and socially, the gap keeps widening. The facilities available for the urban rich and the urban poor are sometimes very different in quality and quantity. Since there will always be differences in society, sustainable planning must be employed as the bridge between the ever-widening inequality chasm. Equal opportunities for prosperity should be created.
Closely related is the need for our cities to be planned to promote inclusiveness while respecting diversity. Common public spaces with access for all, including kids, the elderly and disabled is just one approach. Road facilities should be designed with pedestrians and cyclists in mind, footbridges must have ramps for wheelchair users.
The need to protect arable lands
With the expansion and prosperity of cities come the emerging trend of converting nearby agricultural lands to residential and commercial uses. Where there are no stringent planning regulations in place, rapid urbanization threatens to interfere with food security in the long term. A balance has to be struck between these two competing land uses. Of particular urgency is the need to restrict developments on fertile lands, while also encouraging sustainable urban agriculture.
In conclusion, the challenges facing our cities require an all hands on deck approach. And the best way is through conscious and sustainable planning. It’s a call to all, but will you respond to the call?