'Cities are the solution, not the problem' 19.11.15

medellin

Dytopian visions of our urban future ignore the progress being made by well-designed and well-managed cities in tackling social and environmental problems, argues the director of LSE Cities Ricky Burdett

We all know that 70 per cent of the world’s population will be urban by 2050, a great proportion of which will be living in megacities of more than 10 million people. What took Europe 200 years is now taking 20 years in China and India.

Yet, much of this recent growth elicits fear and consternation. Serried ranks of soulless skyscrapers marching across the urban landscapes of Beijing, Shanghai, Jakarta or Lagos. Rice paddies and green fields covered in asphalt and concrete. Monstrous traffic jams with average commutes of more than four hours a day in Mexico City, São Paulo or Bangkok. Air quality in these megacities has broken all standards set by the World Health Organisation. Some commentators have suggested that breathing urban air on a bad day in Beijing equates to smoking a pack of cigarettes.

But not all megacities are like this Armageddon. Many Chinese, Latin American and even North American cities have invested intelligently in the infrastructure that cities need to make them liveable and sustainable.Medellín and Bogota in Colombia, and Portland and Seattle in the USA, stand out.

The greatest challenge of the onslaught of urban growth will take place elsewhere. It will happen in relatively deprived parts of Africa and Asia, which today lack access to basic services like clean water and sanitation. Over 50 people per hour will be moving into cities which are struggling with informal growth, uncontrolled development, lack of investment and poor governance.

Are cities going to exacerbate our social and environmental problems, or could they actually help provide long-term solutions? The answer is clear. If cities – of whatever size or shape - are well-designed and well-governed, they can improve the lives of billions of people who will be urban by 2050.

Cities account for about two-thirds of global energy consumption. And, they contribute to about 70% of global CO2 emissions. But while this sounds like bad news, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that cities can be designed to be both productive and clean. Stockholm reduced emissions by 35% from 1993 to 2010, but grew its economy by 41%, one of the highest growth rates in Europe. Since 1990, Copenhagen has reduced its carbon emissions by more than 40%, while experiencing real growth of around 50%.

Not all cities are the same, and each requires different solutions to address critical problems. The size and shape of a city has a major impact on its environmental footprint and potential for social cohesion and improved health. This is where design comes in.

As city leaders will argue at the COP21 Climate Change Summit next week, even a small reduction in emissions by the world’s worst urban polluters could make a sizeable difference to the sustainability of the planet. But unlike the cumbersome political systems of national governments and international organisations, cities can act quickly and decisively. It is time to see our cities as the solution and not the problem of contemporary society.

Ricky Burdett will be speaking at the London School of Economics about “Designing Urban Infrastructure: investing for now or tomorrow?” on Thursday, 26 November. The talk is part of the Urban Age 10 Global Debates, presented by the LSE and Deutsche Bank's Alfred Herrhausen Society, which kicks off today [19 November]

 

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Words

Ricky Burdett

 

Above: The cable car in Medellín, Colombia

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Many Chinese, Latin American and even North American cities have invested intelligently in the infrastructure that cities need to make them liveable and sustainable. Medellin and Bogota in Colombia, and Portland and Seattle in the USA, stand out

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