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The 5 toughest challenges tomorrow's cities face

EPA chief McCarthy and Land O'Lakes CEO Policinski joined mayors and other leaders to swap strategies for resilience.

From New York to Shanghai, cities across the globe are swelling, compounding social and environmental sustainability challenges.

Meanwhile, cities are on the frontlines of the climate change fight — although they generate 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, city dwellers have smaller carbon footprints than national averages, according to the International Institute for Environment and Development.

In addition to climate change concerns, cities face challenges with communicating urgent but less visible sustainability problems to stakeholders, modernizing water and transportation infrastructure, improving urban design and feeding growing populations.

"Our cities are up against an awful a lot of challenges," said Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and founder of sustainability forum Planet Forward, at the 2016 Planet Forward Summit on Sustainable Cities last week in Washington, D.C.

If we are going to do the the things we need to do without melting the planet, we are going to need a lot of good stories.

"If we are going to do the the things we need to do without melting the planet, we are going to need a lot of good stories."

At the summit, business, government and nonprofit leaders shared their respective tales of dealing with today’s social and environmental challenges to build the sustainable cities of tomorrow.

1. Communicating ‘invisible’ problems

The challenge

The United States historically has shown a willingness to act to take on visible environmental problems — such as smog, which led to many of the air quality laws of the 1970s — but many problems cities currently face aren’t as easy to see.

"For 45 years we have done a great job at nationally reducing pollution in a way that has significantly improved health for everybody in this country," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. "The challenges today are not a question of if we have the the opportunity to make progress on these issues but how do we act when we can’t see the problems?"

Climate change, for example, is a more pervasive problem that can’t always be directly observed. In a similar vein, many water quality issues afflicting municipalities are less visible to stakeholders.

The solution

A lack of accurate information about sustainability issues is one of the biggest impediments to action, McCarthy said. Case and point: the narrative that environmental and economic health are mutually exclusive.

"Information and transparency are the biggest drivers of change," McCarthy said. "Information allows people to act."

Using facts to convince stakeholders to view sustainability measures as investments rather than costs is critical, McCarthy said. Pointing to the clean up of the Boston Harbor, she said that without this action Boston likely would not be the thriving place it is today.

"The environment opens up opportunities, and you have to look at it as an integrated thought process," McCarthy said. “That’s what sustainability is."

2. Financing modern water infrastructure

The challenge

Water is something many in the United States consider to be a fundamental human right — or a public good that everyone should have access to regardless of the cost.

"While it’s a right, that doesn’t mean it’s free," said Royce Francis, assistant professor of engineering and applied science at George Washington University, discussing the need for new investments in water infrastructure. "It’s a human right if we’re willing to help each other get access."

The United States experiences hundreds of water main breaks a day.

Struggling cities such as Flint, Michigan, highlight the need for public investment in water infrastructure. The United States experiences hundreds of water main breaks a day, and has received a D rating from national rating systems.

The solution

There are two primary routes cities can take to solve their water infrastructure crises — increase water rates or court private investment.

"I pay three times more for Internet than water," said David Farnham, a doctoral student at Columbia University’s Earth & Environmental Engineering Department, illustrating how cheap water rates currently are in many municipalities. "We need to think about replacing pipes, not only for quantity issues but for quality issues."

But increasing water rates is not a politically popular move — even to pay for new and improved infrastructure. Private investors may be able to step in in lieu of raising water rates, but in order for this to be economically feasible thousands of smaller projects across the country need to be bundled.

Jeri Muoio, mayor of West Palm Beach, Florida, said her city is taking a third route: innovation. The city relies heavily on rainfall to meet its water demands, which in recent years has been complicated by a severe drought. To improve water capture and efficiency, the city began giving out rain barrels and vouchers for low flow fixtures.

"I think there’s a way to make our current systems more viable," Muoio said.

3. Transportation grid determines life quality

The challenge

Crumbling public transportation infrastructure across the country is setting cities up for worse problems in the future. As urban populations increase, more people will need affordable and efficient means of getting around.

"The transportation grid we build today is our quality of life tomorrow," said Megan Smith, director of climate and energy initiatives at the office of King County, Washington.

The solution

While the 20th century transportation grid was designed around the automobile, 21st century cities must embrace an integrated approach to public transportation.

"Technology and innovation can help move people around more efficiently, and in fewer cars," said Colin Tooze, director of public policy at Uber.

Crumbling public transportation infrastructure across the country is setting cities up for worse problems.

In many cities across the country, people often take several forms of transportation, including light rail, buses and cars, to get from Point A to Point B. However, reduced faith in public projects has turned citizens off from supporting financing new public transportation projects.

"It takes time to build up public confidence in elected officials to support projects," said Tommy Battle, mayor of Huntsville, Alabama. Battle managed to secure funds for 13 miles of new light rail in his city only after years of fighting to win the public’s support.

4. Reinventing urban environments

The challenge

As more people flock to cities in search of social and economic opportunities, cities face challenges with how to best absorb these new populations in the built environment. While today’s cities are designed around the automobile, a majority of millennials don’t want or don’t have cars — which demands increased public transportation options.

At the same time, many cities such as San Francisco lack the space to expand outward.

The solution

"Resiliency is improving social and economic grooves that allows the city to think in a sustainable way," said Jordan Goldstein, principal of regional planning at Gensler Architects.

"Cities have to reinvent themselves and rethink policy that leads to different type of living."

One way cities can deal with the influx of new citizens is growing up, rather than out. Goldstein cited Shanghai Tower in Shanghai, China, as an example. It's intended to be a vertical city in its own right — containing everything its inhabitants need to live well, including recreational areas, groceries and doctor’s offices.

Small farmers should become the "incubators of innovation."

While still in its infancy, 3D printing could be applied to construct buildings quicker, with less energy and reduced waste than traditional methods.

5. Innovating in agriculture to feed 9 billion people

The challenge

Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and by 2050 this is expected to reach 66 percent, according to the United Nations, when 2.5 billion people will be added to urban populations. That’s a lot of new mouths to feed.

Meanwhile, studies are showing that climate change actually may decrease the nutrition of common crops.

The solution

"We need to double the amount of food we produce, but we don’t have a lot of resources to do it," said Chris Policinski, president and CEO of Land O’Lakes. "We need high-tech and low-tech solutions."

While large farmers tend to be more tech driven, Policinski said, small farmers should become the "incubators of innovation."

Urban farming also could help relieve some of the burden from rural regions.

"We will need combination of food growing in urban and rural areas to meet food demands," said Che Axum, director of the Center for Urban Agriculture and Gardening Education at the University of the District of Columbia. "We’ll need to employ more carbon intensive farming techniques — meaning growing more food in less space."

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