Cities and megacities are playing an increasingly important role in supporting and sustaining the global population. For the first time in human history, more than half of all people are living in cities, and as our cities grow, so does their environmental impact. Although cities occupy less than three percent of the Earth’s surface, they generate a staggering 75 percent of global energy consumption and 80 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Energy consumption is an indicator of a much larger ecological footprint: the total area of land required to maintain the activities of a megacity are hundreds of times their actual size.
Much of this urban growth has occurred without any planning, leading to ancillary problems associated with lack of infrastructure and overcrowding. Nevertheless, our urban areas provide real opportunities for improvements in sustainability, driving innovation and leading the way towards a more sustainable future.
There are several drivers and unique challenges associated with this record-breaking urbanization:
- Unregulated construction and land development – A large influx of people can lead to unregulated construction and pressure for development in disaster-prone areas, leaving people vulnerable to flooding, sea level rise, earthquakes, and resulting destruction to life and property.
- Overcrowding and the proliferation of poverty – Urban migration to cities without proper infrastructure can lead to the proliferation of impoverished neighborhoods and unsanitary conditions. People residing in these areas are more susceptible to disease outbreaks, which can impede their ability to work productively.
Further, inequality can lead to social instability, driving companies near these areas to transfer their operations. Closing businesses exacerbates unemployment and poverty, creating a cycle that leads to further instability in the society and economy.
- Inadequate infrastructure – With an increase in employment, rising incomes can lead to a greater number of households owning cars. However, this growth typically exceeds the city’s ability to expand the roadway infrastructure, causing traffic congestion, which takes a toll on businesses through higher fuel costs and delays in the delivery of goods and services.
Heavy traffic congestion can also be detrimental to workers. Enduring long hours of heavy traffic while commuting can leave employees tired and unproductive once they reach their workplaces. And, in extending the workday with a lengthy commute, workers may have to cut back on their sleeping hours, which can also have negative effects on their health and productivity.
- Impact on ecosystems – Cities have extreme effects on the lives and relationships of plants and animals, both directly within the urban space and indirectly elsewhere through their ecological footprint. Poor air quality is estimated to cause over 1 million premature deaths each year. Through GHG emissions and other factors, cities make a greater contribution to global warming than any other source, increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, which can have massive impacts on urban life.
- Water and waste management – Water, the world’s most threatened essential resource, is a major challenge for cities, where the risk of pollution is high and urbanization can affect rainfall patterns. Improper disposal of municipal waste can have adverse effects on everything from soil fertility and the health of plant life to the safety of drinking water.
Elements of Environmental Planning
Effective environmental planning requires attention to each one of these challenges:
- Infrastructure – Comprehensive environmental planning must ensure that a city’s infrastructure is built and operated sustainably. Roads, buildings, housing, and utility plants should not excessively deplete natural resources, damage the natural environment, or jeopardize people’s health and safety.
In 2017, Italian design firm Stefano Boeri Architetti started work on a unique and innovative sustainable infrastructure solution: the “forest city” in Liuzhou, China. Commissioned by the Liuzhou Municipality Urban Planning Department in order to address the city’s pollution problem, construction of new buildings utilizing the forest city concept is expected to be completed by 2020. The new buildings will feature towers covered in 40,000 trees and one million plants representing at least 100 different species. The trees will absorb approximately 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 57 tons of other pollutants each year, comparable to eliminating 2,100 cars from the roads. The buildings will include offices, hospitals, schools, and homes for approximately 30,000 people, with most of the buildings’ electricity needs provided through renewable sources.
- Policies – Committed leadership is vital in building a sustainable city. Leaders and policymakers who are committed to sustainability will support laws and allocate resources to initiatives that promote sustainable urbanization.
London is struggling with a serious air pollution problem, claiming the lives of an estimated 9,500 people each year. October 2017 research by the Greater London Authority revealed that “7.9 million Londoners – nearly 95 percent of the capital’s population – live in areas that exceed the city’s pollution guidelines by 50 percent or more.” In response, mayor Sadiq Khan has implemented a number of measures, including spending at least £300 million to retrofit the city’s public buses to meet the Ultra-Low Euro VI emissions standard. Once retrofitted, the emissions from these buses will be lowered by up to 95 percent. Khan likewise launched Low Emission Bus Zones in London’s most polluted locations in March and December 2017, policy interventions which have been praised by experts for significantly improving London’s air quality.
- Stakeholder Involvement – Close coordination among stakeholders, including governments, businesses and residents, allows cities to develop and implement solutions more effectively and inclusively. A solution in Singapore related to recycling provides an innovative example.
Over the past ten years, Singapore’s household recycling rate has stagnated at approximately 20 percent. The majority of the country’s waste is burned before being sent to landfills, and only 7 percent of its plastic waste is recycled. In January 2018, Tiger Beer and Singapore’s informal waste traders (known locally as Karung guni) began collaboration on the Recycle with Tiger campaign to boost recycling in the city. Tiger Beer’s staff distribute flyers containing information about the Karung guni’s collections and provide residents with company merchandise in exchange for their recyclables.
The Recycle with Tiger campaign simultaneously addresses Singapore’s waste problem and helps maintain the Karung guni’s livelihood, which was threatened by the closure in July 2017 of Sungei Market, a popular local flea market where the Karung guni would trade the recycled goods they had collected. This campaign is an emphatic example of the interests of different stakeholders aligning within the larger goal for sustainability.
Environmental Planning: For A Better Urban World
In addition to implementing local solutions, cities across the planet are collaborating to magnify the impact of their work. The Global Platform for Sustainable Cities (GPSC) centralizes expertise in data collection and financing from 28 cities in 11 countries to help bring ambitious environmental planning projects to fruition. In November 2017, at the 2nd annual GPSC conference, a partnership of five cities from India announced their plans to establish the Indian Platform for Sustainable Cities, to mirror the GPSC.
When city governments promote sustainability, using their position to build sustainable infrastructure, they also make their city a safe and attractive place in which to live and work. When citizens and local organizations create initiatives that complement city governments’ sustainability efforts, they also contribute to improving their own health and livelihoods. By focusing on infrastructure, policy, and stakeholder involvement, environmental planning supports a healthy and dynamic relationship between a city’s people and its environments. With an increasing number of cities worldwide seeking innovative ways to implement environmental planning and sustainability projects, 2018 looks to be a year of opportunity.
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