Sustainable Cities

In today’s fast paced world, a city is not merely a place to live, it’s a catalyst in the process of economic and social growth and innovation.

Author Anna Rees, 07.08.12

In today’s fast paced world, a city is not merely a place to live, it’s a catalyst in the process of economic and social growth and innovation.

However, it is the sustainable urban development and its effects on social and environmental development that one needs to start looking at. Despite the looming challenges regarding the management of mass migration that lay ahead, the benefits that urbanization brings with it are numerous, paving the way for a new cultural and economic boom.

Sustainable urban development in the social sphere

Over half of all urban growth will take place in China and India, which are emerging centres of economic growth. The overall urban scenario leads to unprecedented challenges, most important of which are: dealing with (informal) population growth; providing access to resources such as clean water and electricity, as well as housing, social infrastructure, and sanitation; enforcing stricter urban pollution control; and introducing new, less oil-intensive mobility concepts.

Sustainability can have limited relevance to a world in which most people live from hand to mouth. For those people, sustainability simply has no immediate relevance; the struggle of surviving holds obvious priority.

But this social dimension – which includes poverty and deprivation, gender inequality, and social exclusion – is central to sustainable urban development. Often it is the poor who suffer from the lack of infrastructure development during rapid urbanization in developing cities. Currently, one in three city dwellers lives in urban slums with almost no water and sanitation, inadequate hygiene, and frequent lack of state protection. Hence, it seems that the innovative transformation of existence as well as rapidly growing cities is the key to sustainable urbanisation rather than replicating the urban growth model of the industrialised world.

The global dimension

The tremendous demands of emerging cities will impact global fuel, food, and steel prices and affect global CO2 mitigation targets as well as international trade. A one percent growth in urbanisation is estimated to lead to a 2.2 per cent increase in energy consumption. Considering the projected growth rate of 150 per cent between 1990 and 2025, overall energy consumption should quadruple and resulting CO2 emissions will be responsible for half of the changes affecting the planet’s climate.

The argument that emerging countries should slow down their economic development because of global emissions is unlikely to deter them. Actually, the opposite will occur: emerging countries have to grow rapidly for a number of years to reduce poverty and generate the resources needed to provide social and physical infrastructure for education, health service, clean water, sanitation, transport, and energy. Hence, developing new and adaptive solutions in an emerging urban context is absolutely necessary for sustaining the global “green deal”.

For countries like India and China, the urban scenario offers the unique opportunity for them to become pioneers: even though their cities are at the heart of the problem, they also contain the mechanisms to solve it. The revised question in the global urbanization scenario could be “can emerging cities set new sustainability standards?”

Under the microscope

Countries such as China and India are facing four major simultaneous challenges: (1) immense population (growth); (2) vast industrialization, (3) scarcity of resources; and (4) a bureaucracy that cannot follow the speed of transformation, especially when pushed by factors (1) and (2). This overall scenario puts pressure on citizens, politicians, and bureaucrats as well as businesses. On the other hand, the countries’ growth scenarios create a set of new opportunities, because their speed of transformation enables innovation in a measurable timeframe. The result is that emerging countries function as laboratories for adaptations: in the private sector through entrepreneurship; and in the public sector through new and innovative policy guidelines and implementation strategies. To ensure that these adaptations are successful, emerging countries have to join forces.

The reality check

India is witnessing an urban transformation of an entirely novel scale and speed. The Ministry of Urban Development estimates the country’s urban population to increase from 286 million in 2001 to 530 million in 2021. Populations of new megacities such as Bangalore (currently 9.7 million) or Chennai (currently 9.6 million) will increase, and existing megacities such as Mumbai (20.7 million) and New Delhi (24 million) will triple in size by 2050. Furthermore, the urban economy has bypassed most of the country’s 600,000 villages, compelling the rural population to migrate to cities in search of a better livelihood. According to the World Bank, 30 rural migrants will arrive in an Indian city every minute over the next 20 years. A 2014 report by the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates between 2014 and 2050, an additional 404 million people are set to join India’s urban populations while the country will be home to seven megacities.

To tackle this challenge, India has to build 500 new cities. For Joan Cloas, Executive Director of UN HABITAT, it is clear that migration into cities is the most serious current political and economic development. At the same time, the consequences of urban pollution, stressed resources, and its effects on millions of dwellers is likely to become a significant negative factor of India’s economic development. Thus, the second most populous country in the world will increase its CO2 emissions to 7.3 billion tons annually by 2031, about five times the current emission rate of 1.5 billion tons (per capita).

The outlook for India

India has a lower energy intensity than China or the United States, a result of the low-carbon character of the country’s economy, which is weighted towards services. But this scenario is about to change. India’s urban areas already account for about 60 percent of the overall energy consumption, but at the same time, the productivity of the urban sector contributes 60 per cent to India’s GDP.

The central government has advised the states to minimize subsidies and to place urban development plans and projects in a commercial format and to collect additional taxes to minimize the differences in cost of operation and income. Municipalities are focusing on tax-free bonds to provide money for infrastructure development. The government is also seeking private sector participation in providing reliable water supplies. Existing laws are currently being amended for increased transparency and accountability regarding the use of public funds for the development of urban areas. The national climate change policy, released in 2008, does not provide strong implementation guidelines for the implementation of adaptation strategies for India’s cities.

International support is needed to tackle the challenges of a sustainable urban transformation. For instance, the Japan International Cooperation Agency is involved in drafting the Delhi Water Plan 2021, which is intended to improve the city’s water supply system. Additionally, in November 2010, India and Japan unveiled a plan to launch 24 green cities along the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, which will have optimized energy supplies, a 24-hour potable water supply, bicycle and walking paths, and water and waste recycling systems.

Author: Isabelle-Jasmin Roth. Last update: February 2018

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