Why cities hold the key -- and key challenges -- for sustainability

Is the increasing urbanization of the world’s population a good or a bad trend from a sustainability standpoint? That was the key question debated by a panel of experts at today’s VERGE conference in London, an event organized by GreenBiz. While some saw significant grounds for optimism, others perceived a less rosy future.

“I’m definitely optimistic,” said Connor Riffle, head of cities at the Carbon Disclosure Project, a not-for-profit organization that promotes the measurement, management and sharing of environmental information. “Cities let us achieve the efficiencies we need to scale up the world.”

“It’s absolutely terrifying,” countered Anne Power, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics. “The risks are massive.”

The majority of urban population growth is in the developing world, she said, and the biggest challenges center on what she earthily described as “bugs and shit.” Can sanitation, water treatment, waste disposal and recycling keep pace with the rapid growth of cities in countries where these challenges are already neglected? “By nature I’m positive,” Power said, “but we face a lot of tough and messy work on the ground.”

Riffle, by contrast, said that current trends offer a massive opportunity for the developing world to change the balance of power by building modern cities that might be attractive on the global stage. “If you don’t compete [to attract the best people], your city will not survive,” he said.

Mark Palmer, IBM's vice president for the public sector in Europe, shares some of Riffle’s optimism. “Today’s rapid urbanization is both a big opportunity and a challenge. It’s a big opportunity to make the planet more sustainable,” Palmer said, arguing that greater “instrumentation” -- or gathering hard data to fuel analysis and planning -- is the only route to improving matters.

Urban populations are more suited to this kind of measurement, he added, and the resulting insight is a necessary step for greater sustainability. “Technology accounts for 2 percent of emissions and rising, but it can help us do better with the other 98 percent,” Palmer said.

Still, Richard Jackson, head of environmental sustainability at University College London, wonders whether the use of technology will be enough. “Cities have the potential to accommodate mass growth, but the way we do things today, I worry about whether our cities can grow and adapt,” he said.

3D image of the city by carlos castilla via Shutterstock.

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