While high population density is often seen as the root of all urban evil, there is a flip side.
“Due to the density of population and industry, cities can act as concentrated areas where policy can be implemented in an efficient manner,” said Benjamin Goldstein, a Canadian friend of mine who researches environmental engineering at the Danish Technical University in Denmark.
But what exactly should these policies be?
Urban policymakers already know the biggest sustainability challenges revolve around managing water, waste and energy — but there currently is little data available to help them make informed decisions. This dearth of supporting data means cities tend to either put off making meaningful changes, or do the best they can without really knowing if their policies are effective.
“Lacking evidence or data, policymakers fall back on hyperbole, ignorance and politics when making important decisions. Cities need to start making concerted efforts to collect relevant data on a large scale and to choose proper indicators to benchmark over long periods of time,” Goldstein continued.
After compiling a library of data with which to track the effects of various policies, cities can finally move into an era of “city science” and tackle problems with intelligence and accountability.
One of the best ways cities can simultaneously address the issues of water, waste and energy is by re-imagining and avoiding the suburbs. While suburban life has become a pillar of the “American Dream,” it simply is not sustainable. For one thing, the larger exposed surface areas on houses demands increased interior space conditioning. Over-reliance on automobiles leads to increased air pollution, dependence on fossil fuels, as well as the externalities of higher stress from traffic and lost life from accidents. But the greatest challenge of all could be figuring out how to repurpose an entire lifestyle many feel entitled to.
Luckily, much of future population growth will take place in emerging economies, which offers an opportunity to avoid suburbanization altogether.
“A two-fold solution involves addressing both the local pollution of emerging cities so that those with the money to do not move en masse to the suburbs, and also dispelling the notion of the superiority of the suburbs as a place to live,” Goldstein said. “At the same time, cities must also be careful to avoid income stratification, so that the city provides affordable housing options for all residents.”
We are in big trouble, if China is any indication of where emerging economies are headed. Suburban and exurban development already is becoming the natural escape mechanism for wealthy Chinese from the polluted and crowded cities.
Aspiring smart cities would do well to look to Melbourne, Australia, which earlier this year declared itself carbon neutral after a long-term sustainability campaign. To achieve this, the city launched a new waste management program, encouraged residents to ride bicycles and use public transit, and installed efficient heating, cooling and water systems.
Realizing that the city could only be as sustainable as its citizens, Melbourne introduced the 5×4 house, a super energy-efficient, carbon-neutral home on a 5×4 meter plot of land. The city also established the Murundaka Co-housing Community, an eco-housing complex of 20 residence based on the principles of community and sustainable living. Interestingly, these sustainability gains came as income inequality in Australia decreased overall.
There is no sustainability “silver bullet” — the challenges facing cities around the world are as wide and varied as the cultures within them. But if cities today can learn from each other and take scientific, data-driven approaches to sustainable development, they just might become the sustainability champions of tomorrow.
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