by Dan Vermeer, executive director, EDGE
Following are Dan Vermeer’s opening remarks for the panel “Sustainable Cities: Planning and Infrastructure for Sustainable Communities” at the World Future Energy Summit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, January 18, 2011.
As millions of people pour into urban areas every day, cities increasingly demonstrate both the challenge and the promise of sustainable development. On one hand, the rapid influx of people into cities, especially in the emerging economies, risks overwhelming any plan for how to house, feed, transport, and find work for the masses. On the other hand, many cities are embracing new green technology and using different planning approaches to create cities that are clean, efficient, and smart. In any case, there is no doubt that cities are central to a sustainable future. Where cities go, so goes the world.
Defining the City
With all the rhetoric, we need to ask some basic questions, such: what are cities anyway, and what role do they play in making a more sustainable world? One definition suggests that cities are dense agglomerations of people and infrastructure that enable the provision of more specialized goods and services, function as a transportation hub, accumulate capital and provide financial services, educate a labor force, and concentrate administrative functions for an area.
Another way to think about cities is that they are fundamentally “energy systems.” In other words, industrializing cities of the past were concentrators of many kinds of work, vastly amplified through the use of resources like coal and oil. This concentration led to the formation of industries, unique accumulation of wealth and power, and a totally different way of life for the newly urbanized masses.
In contrast to the agricultural regimes that relied on broadly distributed solar power, cities grew based on a fundamentally different array of energy sources. In this sense, the city and its energy sources were inconceivable without the other. And shifts in one inevitably implied shifts in the other. As Lewis Mumford observed, “Cities served as engines of social change, providing the spatial concentration and specialized institutions needed to industrialize, and therewith, to convert power into form, energy into culture.”
So as we turn our attention to today’s urban environment and the quest to make cities sustainable, let’s keep these principles in mind. First, cities are structured according the ways they use energy and resources. Second, wealth is created through the control of energy, which then drives the further evolution of the system. Not only the functions of the city, but also the social patterns and culture of the city are largely derivative of these energy choices.
What is the story of the city in the 21st century? The central fact is that the greatest shift of population ever from the countryside to the city is underway as we speak. In 2007, the world’s population crossed the threshold where more people live in cities than in the countryside. This trend has been developing for decades. For example, the global proportion of urban population rose dramatically from 13% (220 million) in 1900, to 29% (732 million) in 1950, to 49% (3.2 billion) in 2005. The same report projected that the figure is likely to rise to 60% (4.9 billion) by 2030.
This mass movement is largely an emerging (or emerged) economy phenomenon. In coming decades, it is estimated 93% of urban growth will occur in developing nations, with 80% of urban growth occurring in Asia and Africa.
The Paradox of City Planning
As we look deeper at this phenomenon, there are actually two quite different narratives of the city. On one hand, some imply that cities are consciously designed, based on plans that emerge from collective processes amongst city residents and officials. Seeing the thousands of cranes building skyscrapers in major Chinese cities, it is tempting to think of cities as products of human design and planning.
On the other, cities can appear to be the random accumulation of billions of individual decisions by its residents, the vast majority of which emerge spontaneously without any guiding principle. For example, the squatter populations on the Yamuna’s banks in New Delhi defy any central plan – thousands arrive each day to find a place for themselves in the chaotic settlements.
Forms of Urban Sustainability
Meanwhile, a different story of cities is developing in Europe, America, and other developed economies. Leading cities are going through a quieter, but profound transformation. Cities built on paradigm of cheap fuel and the personal automobile are reorganizing themselves for a different energy world. These upgraded cities include more efficient buildings, denser, richer neighborhoods, public transport, bike lanes, smart grids, and many other innovations. For example, New York, London, and Portland are embracing change, and evolving to new and better forms. In one of the more mature examples, Freiburg, Germany has been involved in a long-term effort to incorporate renewable energy, built better buildings, create efficient transport systems, and implemented principles of smart growth. All the elements are integrated and mutually reinforcing.
Finally, there is the growing number of struggling, or even failing, cities, particularly in the wake of the global economic crisis – e.g. Phoenix and Detroit. Many factors contribute to this situation including a slumping housing market, chronic unemployment vicious, urban sprawl, a shattered tax base, crumbling infrastructure, etc. What does it mean for these cities to be sustainable? Is there more than just a cautionary tale here? What does their path to sustainability look like?
Can lessons be learned by studying these different examples? In the work of Geoffrey West described in the New York Times last month, they identified several constants that describe every city, despite their local differences. Based on knowing a few features of a city, like its population, West uses a few elegant laws to make precise predictions about the number of violent crimes, surface area of roads, average income, dimensions of its sewage system, etc. West’s work suggests that cities have a deep structure, and this structure creates defined patterns, which then largely account for why cities flourish or fail. West’s principles include:
Principle #1: In one sense, cities are inherently sustainable.
One of the basic rules is that cities reap the dividend produced through economies of scale. For example, when a city doubles in size, it requires an increase in resources of only 85%. Cities need less heat in winter and require less asphalt/capita than rural areas. Surprisingly, studies have found that New York is “most sustainable” city in the US based on the economies of scale. New Yorkers, on average, have a smaller carbon footprint and less resource use that their suburban peers. One correlate of this principle is that for sustainability, we need cities, and we need them bigger.
In his recent book Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand argues that the effects of urbanization are mostly positive for the environment. Firstly, the birth rate of new urban dwellers falls immediately to replacement rate, and keeps falling. This can prevent overpopulation in the future. Secondly, it puts a stop to destructive subsistence farming techniques, like slash and burn agriculture. Finally, it minimizes land use by humans, leaving more for nature.
Principle #2: Cities make us richer.
When a city doubles in size, every measure of economic activity increased ~15%, as measured by bank deposits, construction spending, etc. In this sense, sustainability in the urban environment should be seen as an enabler to wealth creation and investment back into the strengths of the city. It is worth stressing that sustainability is NOT a cost at the expense of other priorities, but an investment in making the city work better – create wealth and jobs, enrich relationships, improve quality of life.
Principle #3: Cities are innovation engines
Cities facilitate richer social interaction and the formation of networks. As Geoffrey West observes, “cities are about people, not infrastructure.” Cities are the ultimate “water cooler” – they create many opportunities for people to meet through chance encounters, and intermingle with a diverse set of people. In this environment, there are more ideas in motion, all bouncing off each other. There is also more feedback about what works and doesn’t Finally, there is more access to people with useful resources (skills, money).
A corollary of this ideas is that struggling cities have often traded off these inherent virtues of the city for other non-urban values – space, comfort, peace, personal ownership. Additionally, there are downsides to the urban model – e.g. when cities double in size, the rate of violent crime, AIDS cases, and traffic congestion also go up ~15%. In this sense, cities are not like other organisms. In contrast to any other species that gets slower as it grows (e.g. elephant), cities accelerate with size.
Principle #4: Cities create voracious energy users
Let’s take this question of urbanization down to the individual level. One way to look at the energy requirements for human beings is to evaluate the “wattage” of people in different environments. For example, a human at rest burns about 90 watts to just keep breathing, similar to a large light bulb. A person in a prehistoric society who hunted and gathered for a living would need about 250 watts. However, once you put a person in a modern city, they seek out all sorts of energy-based supports to their way of life – transportation, temperature-controlled shelter, eating, communications – all of which require energy to operate. If you total up this direct and indirect energy demand of the average city dweller, that person requires the equivalent of about 11,000 watts!
Why? Because cities enable a uniquely intensive mode of consumption – cities mean access to the 6 Cs:
- Calories: people come to cities to get higher quality food, which must be produced, harvested, and transported to the consumer. This takes a lot of energy (and other resources), especially as diets globally become more meat-heavy.
- Care: another attraction to the city is access to health services. This improves both higher quality of life, and longer lifespans.
- Condo: In contrast to the living conditions in many rural areas, the living standard in urban areas, even in slums, often compares well.
- Comfort: As people move in to the urban middle class, they often are attracted to heating and cooling to make their living spaces more comfortable and constant during changing conditions.
- Cell Phone: The rapid global rise of the cell phone is a testament to the high value that people place on communication. In a few short years, over 4 billion cell phones have been purchased, and are in use even in places with little public infrastructure.
- Car: Finally, access to personal transportation is a major attraction for many urban immigrants.
Adding all of these additional products and services does indeed improve the quality of life in many ways, but it also means that the average urban dweller consumes as much energy as a blue whale to sustain itself. Seen through this lens, it is easy to see why the combination of surging populations (expected to reach 7 billion globally in 2011), urbanization, and longer lifespans together place unprecedented stress on the earth’s ecosystems.
Changing the Game
As the old formula for calculating environmental impact stated the problem,
Impact = Population + Affluence + Technology
In the medium term, it is nearly inevitable that both Population and Affluence will continue to rise, so the only lever is T – Technology. Technology here is a broad notion, referring to all forms of technical and social innovation. So therefore, the key for addressing the global sustainability challenge must be constant innovation – humans have demonstrated over and over their ability to respond creatively in the face of growing scarcity. As one resource is depleted, humans are able to shift to a different resource base and continue their growth.
This innovation cycle also accelerates constantly by definition – the cycles of depletion and substitution come faster and faster. In the past, big revolutions in energy systems came every few thousand years, then every few hundred years. Now big revolutions come every 15 years, overlapping and blurring into each other.
We traded stability for growth, and the innovation and disruption that is required.
Solving the City
In conclusion, it is clear that the only solution to the problem of the city is the city itself. Cities are created based on the energy systems that they develop and deploy. Cities then enable for a vast expansion in the use of energy to meet ever-evolving needs and wants. As the resource demands exceed the capacity of the environment, cities foster the interaction, learning, and access required to develop new solutions.
So the pathway is clear: first, we must enable constant maximum innovation to the problem of the city. Whether it is a clean sheet city like Masdar, an upgrade city like London, or a struggling city like Phoenix, cities must identify and nurture the sources of their creativity to create new options for themselves. And in fact, this work continues in earnest all over the world. Second, sustainable urban solutions must be built on a robust energy (and resource) platform, since these are basic to all of the solutions that can be developed. And finally city solutions must be innovative both technologically AND socially. Rather than think in terms only of their technical adequacy, it is crucial that new urban forms also be fair, improve quality of life, and create wealth and jobs. These elements cannot be viewed in isolation, but must be integrated in concept and practice.