The Urbanization of the World: Invest in Sustainable Cities or Perish
By 2050, the human population will reach 9.3 billion. Seventy percent will be urban dwellers. Time to invest in sustainable cities
Earlier this month, the Sustainable Cities Working Group of the Rio+20 Earth Summit submitted a paper for the draft of the so-called "outcome document" of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, the international summit to be held in Rio in July 2012.
"Cities are critical to the planet's transition to a green economy that will increase opportunities, reduce poverty, and foster a more sustainable future," said the group, which includes representatives from the Ford Foundation, Green for All, the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, Natural Resources Defense Council, Next American City, Partnership for Working Families, University of Pennsylvania, Worldwatch Institute and World Resources Institute. If the planet is going to survive with a human population that is estimated to swell from the current 7 billion to a staggering 9.3 billion by 2050, sustainability must drive urban development.
75 x 75 x 75 = A DANGEROUS CONVERGENCE
The group said that cities "consume more than 75 percent of the world's natural resources, use approximately 75 percent of the world's energy, and are responsible for 75 percent of its carbon emissions." And those numbers add up to more than a great imbalance between urban and rural areas. They also indicate a tipping point that challenges how the international community handles the effects of global warming and the depletion of limited resources.
"Urbanization and climate change," according to UN Habitat, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, which promotes socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities, are "two of the greatest challenges currently facing humanity in the 21st century, and whose effects are converging in dangerous ways."
RETHINKING THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
The combined challenge has been taken up in various forms by several sustainable city initiatives around the world. JESSICA (Joint European Support for Sustainable Investment in City Areas), for example, is a European Commission initiative developed in cooperation with the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the Council of Europe Development Bank (CEB) that supports sustainable urban development through financial vehicles, such as structural funds to make refundable investments in cities across Europe in several areas, including infrastructure, waste removal, transport and energy.
Focusing on the integration of the built environment and wildlife habitats to address both the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, the Urban Greenspaces Institute (UGI) at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, sees the ideal cities not separate from the rural landscape, but a seamless part of a holistic relationship "where the built and natural environments are interwoven" and that "well-designed, nature-rich cities are beautiful, equitable, compact, and ecologically sustainable places to live, thereby reducing urban sprawl across the rural landscape."
UGI's vision of Ross Island, actually a cluster of four islands in the Willamette River in Portland which is an altered landscape due to extensive resource extraction, includes the removal of invasive plants like ivy and blackberry, improving the habitat for terrestrial species (such as the creation of nesting boxes for targeted species like wood ducks, purple martins and kestrels), mitigating riverbank erosion and biodiversity monitoring to keep track of the area's abundant wildlife.
CITIES IN LDCs: THE BIGGEST GROWTH
But the biggest urban growth is going to happen in less developed countries (LDCs). And in places like Africa, where financial, technological and educational resources are more limited, planning sustainable urban development presents its own kinds of challenges.
"Although the mandates of the research and technology institutes in most African countries purport to address national development, their efforts are often not well integrated at the sector level resulting in a lack of synergy, which undermines effective transfer between scientific discovery and technology development," according to UN Habitat.
The private sector, particularly through foreign direct investment (FDI), can play a positive role in transferring knowledge from the developed world to the developing world. And as many cities in LDCs are not as built-up as in developed nations, they are well-poised to execute generational jumps in technology to speed sustainable growth. (The leapfrog over PCs in favor of mobile phones is one example.)
THE "VIRTUOUS CIRCLE": MAKING SUSTAINABLE CITIES INVESTABLE
Investing in sustainable aspects of a city is certainly beneficial, but what about making sustainable cities as a whole "investable"? That's what David Wood, director of the Initiative for Responsible Investment at Harvard University, has proposed. Wood, who assists foundation endowments and pension fund trustees devise socially-responsible investing strategies, sees cities as "vibrant organisms that need to be thought of holistically for sustainable investment to achieve its potential" and which represent "a promising new focus for responsible investment...that sheds on the role that finance can play in serving the interest of society as a whole."
But he also notes, "Private investors cannot do this alone -- for sustainable cities to become investable, close cross-sector coordination among regional, national, and international governments, the private sector, and civil society groups will be necessary." And there's the rub: This kind of coordination -- whether it's to stabilize the global environment or the world economy -- has sorely been lacking on an international level. Here's another area where the private sector might be able to help through coordinated investments.
In Wood's shared vision, a stakeholder-based public-private "virtuous circle" coordinates city-level green policies with private sector investment "to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy within a framework that ensure the creation of public goods," a strategy that goes "beyond one-off investment in projects and funds...to make sustainable cities themselves investable." When the Rio+20 delegates outline the ten-year global agenda for sustainable urban development in July, Wood's holistic concept of investable sustainable cities is worth discussing.
"Since the first Earth Summit, the number of slum dwellers worldwide has grown from roughly 660 million to nearly one billion," according to the Sustainable Cities Working Group. "If cities shrink from their obligations, it will put all of us at risk. The way we collectively address urbanization will define the fate of billions of people and the sustainability of human society." Mayors of the world, take note.
image: Downtown region of São Paulo city, Brazil. In the foreground, the Itália building, Oscar Niemeyer’s COPAN (ondulated one) and the former Hilton Hotel (cylindrical one) can be seen. (Jurema Oliveira, Wikimedia Commons)