Sustainable Cities: Vision and Reality

As the world‘s urban population continues to increase, billions of people suffer from diseases caused by polluted air, lack of sanitation or drinking water shortage. At last, cities around the globe, among them some of the main culprits, are taking steps to reduce their ecological footprint.

We live in an urbanised world. In 2007, for the first time in history, more people lived in urban than in rural areas. Today, the urban population is over 4 billion people with another estimated 2.5 billion joining them by 2050. Unfortunately, this urbanisation process puts further strain on the environment: Cities consume 78 % of the world’s energy and account for 60 % of global greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, urbanisation puts increasing pressure on fresh water supplies, sewage, the living environment and public health.

Urban populations are particularly vulnerable to respiratory infections connected to polluted air. In developing countries, 98 % of cities with populations above 100,000 do not meet WHO air quality standards. Even in high-income countries, this figure stands at 56 %.  Especially children are at risk: 1.8 billion children breathe polluted air which endangers their development every day. In 2016, 600,000 of them died of respiratory diseases. In addition, the people living in cities have a higher risk of having strokes, being diagnosed with lung cancer or dying from heart failure. All these facts emphasise that the situation is serious.

Luckily , there is some reason for hope, as the world community becomes more aware of the negative effects of pollution and climate change. On all continents, urban planners develop innovative concepts to shape the cities of the future. Sustainability is key to these projects, as their initiators have the ambition to provide green urban areas for populations, while preserving the environment for generations to come.

One of the main cornerstones of any low-impact city is a low- or even zero-carbon strategy. Transportation alone accounts for over one fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions. Road vehicles are responsible for 74 % of those emissions. Nevertheless, car ownership continues to increase rapidly, as a consequence of economic development in Africa and Asia. Most experts see only one way out of the gridlock many megacities are faced with: massive investments in public transport and bike infrastructure. They recommend municipalities to offer their citizens attractive bus or rail networks in densely populated areas. As soon as travelling with public transport becomes significantly faster than being stuck in congestion, more and more car drivers will switch to green alternatives. Furthermore, a few cities accept bold actions to promote bicycles. After all, cycling causes zero carbon emissions and improves public health as a side effect.

Another aspect of most eco pilot projects is state of the art building design. Skyscraper grass facades in Milan, gardens on roof terraces in London or artificial skiing slopes on factories in Copenhagen… this non-exhaustive list underlines the diversity and creativity in this field. The plans do not have much in common, but they all rely on reusable and/or eco-friendly building materials like bamboo, reclaimed wood or recycled plastic.

Some ambitious governments take a more fundamental approach and want to redefine our entire understanding of cities. The Chinese urban construction model Sponge City is supposed to alleviate water shortages and the urban heat island effect. Sponge cities absorb water through ecological flood management, infrastructure and a sustainable drainage system on an urban scale. Besides creating a beautiful landscape environment, the water collected in ponds, swamps and marshlands can also be repurposed for irrigation and home use.

Meanwhile, the Sheiks of the oil exporting U.A.E seem to be willing to improve their public image. Located on the Persian Gulf, Masdar City is advertised as an “emerging global clean technology cluster”. It is supposed to become one of the most sustainable urban developments worldwide, powered exclusively by renewable energy. However, the completion date for the initial 1 million square meters was delayed from 2015 to 2025, and then to 2030. Like on countless other occasions, politicians saw their priorities elsewhere.

But what do all these promising ideas tell us about the global picture? Around the world government are very cautious to support truly sustainable cities in national legislation. Many politicians fear the rage of unemployed steel workers, coal miners and the car industry, and point towards the “high costs” of innovation. Too many of them choose to disregard the consequences of their inactivity and instead put a burden on the next generation. In contrast, scientists warn that climate change must be dealt with now. It is crucial to develop a global vision for the environment, of which cities are a central part.

To sum up, many of the examples mentioned above are steps in the right direction. Optimistic entrepreneurs and activists fill the gap left by reluctant governments. However, the current pace of slow change is not sufficient. Countries must act more quickly to respond to air pollution, traffic congestion and water management. We need progressive policies and honesty. We need a new mindset and focus on the future. We need change.

Jan Hübel & Tommaso Giammarioli, April 2021