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

<p>Cities already gobble up most of the world&rsquo;s resources, so will increasing urbanization bring greater efficiency or simply more consumption?</p>

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.

Jackson was formerly head of sustainability for the Olympic Delivery Authority, the U.K. agency organizing this summer’s Olympic Games. The majority of events at the London games will be held in venues built on a decontaminated brownfield site to the east of the capital. “With the Olympic Park, we found we could specify a lot of technologies but the real learning is in the process of delivery,” Jackson said.

Ambitious plans for urban development typically fail in delivery, often through a lack of organization and leadership, he said. “What we did was set strategy and then put in place rigid processes and strong leadership, and then at the back we did detailed project closeout to ensure contractors delivered on contracts,” he said.

The 2.5 square kilometers of the Olympic Park is an unusually large urban area to be tackled in one project, but that size brought significant benefits according to Jackson. It allowed the deployment of “scaled up” infrastructure in terms of energy, recycling and parkland – the benefits of which will be felt long after the athletes have gone home. “It’s highly doubtful we could have achieved the same quality of results by tackling the site in a piecemeal fashion,” Jackson noted.

Strong city leadership is vital, the panelists agreed, particularly in achieving the kind of large-scale, joined-up change that Jackson recommended. “Investors make financial bets based partly on quality of leadership in companies,” Riffle said. “Will we see the same in terms of cities – with investment decisions based on the quality of management?”

However, professor Power warned that many city governments are too worried about simply “holding it together” to contemplate grandiose redevelopment schemes. “In China or India or Latin America, city leaders are worried about the potential for disorder or disaster, because the critical mass is poor people.”

Power noted that when people are bottled up, eruptions become inevitable: “The push will be towards more social integration – because there’s no other solution.”


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