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Sustainable Cities: Meeting the Challenge of Rapid Urbanization the Focus of "Planet Under Pressure 2012"

Addressing the social, environmental and economic challenges associated with rapid and growing urbanization is bringing some 3,000 experts from around the world together in London this week for the "Planet Under Pressure 2012" conference.

With world population forecast to increase from 7 billion today to more than 9 billion by 2050, humanity's urban footprint will take up 1.5 million more square kilometers of land by 2030 at current rates, an area comparable to that of France, Germany and Spain combined. That translates into an average 1 million more city dwellers every week for the next 38 years, with the world's total urban population forecast to increase from 3.5 billion today to 6.3 billion by 2050, according to Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference organizers.

These trends are impossible to stop, practically speaking, which means that the question is not whether or not urbanization should take place, but how best to urbanize, states Dr. Michael Fragkias of Arizona State University, one among nearly 3,000 conference participants.

"Today's ongoing pattern of urban sprawl puts humanity at severe risk due to environmental problems," Fragkias adds, issues that conference attendees intend to discuss, debate and offer solutions to. "Dense cities designed for efficiency offer one of the most promising paths to sustainability, and urbanization specialists will share a wealth of knowledge available to drive solutions."

Cities place tremendous strains on natural resources and the environment. New ways of thinking about how to make cities more self-sufficient and sustainable, along with advances in a wide range of technologies and heightened environmental awareness is leading to a reformulation of urban planning and development, however.

Cities, CO2 and climate change

Cities are responsible for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions, with urban area greenhouse gas emissions increasing in recent decades. Urban-area CO2 emissions were estimated at about 15 billion metric tons in 1990. That increased to 25 billion metric tons in 2010, with forecasts of that growing to 36.5 billion by 2030 given a "business-as-usual" scenario."

Focusing on "urban efficiencies," such as using weather conditions and time of day-adjusted tolls stems to reduce traffic congestion, is essential if the world's societies are to address climate change, according to Shobhakar Dhakal, executive director of the Tokyo-based Global Carbon Project.

Vehicle traffic congestion not only wastes fuel and causes pollution, but also time. People wasted an estimated 4.2 billion hours sitting or moving slowly in traffic in the US alone in 2005. The estimated cost of traffic congestion in lost productivity in New York City has been estimated to total $4 billion a year.

Despite being faced with urbanization at a scale never experienced before, emerging cities do have advantages compared to earlier times.

"Re-engineering cities is urgently needed for global sustainability," says Dr. Dhakal, adding that emerging urban areas "have a latecomer's advantage in terms of knowledge, sustainability thinking, and technology to better manage such fundamentals as trash and transportation."

A smart, interconnected "internet of things"

In addition, smart buildings, cars, transportation, power, water and waste systems are examples of an emerging "Internet of things," Dr. Dhakal points out, offering "a fast-growing number of high-tech, artificially intelligent, Internet-connected cars, appliances, cameras, roadways, pipelines and more - in total about one trillion in use worldwide today."

Among the digital computing and telecommunications that can be employed to improve the sustainability of cities and better cope with urbanization are:

High-tech ways to improve the efficiency of urban operations and human health and well-being, according to Planet Under Pressure 2012 participants include:

  • Rapid patient screening and diagnostics with digitalized health records;

  • Utility meters and sensors that monitor the capacity of the power generation network and continually gather data on supply and demand of electricity;

  • Integrated traveler information services and toll road pricing based on traffic, weather and other data;

  • Data gathering and feedback from citizens using mobile phones.
"Our focus should be on enhancing the quality of urbanization - from urban space, infrastructure, form and function, to lifestyle, energy choices and efficiency," according to Dr. Dhakal. Care also needs to be taken to avoid the myriad potential problems that may come with dense urbanization, such as paralyzing traffic congestion, pollution, crime, the rapid spread of infectious disease and other societal problems.

"The way cities have grown since World War II is neither socially or environmentally sustainable and the environmental cost of ongoing urban sprawl is too great to continue," adds Prof. Karen Seto of Yale University, who with colleagues is organizing four of the 160 conference sessions at Planet Under Pressure 2012.
"The planet can't afford not to urbanize," Seto continues. "People everywhere, however, have increasingly embraced Western styles of architecture and urbanization, which are resource-intense and often not adapted to local climates. The North American suburb has gone global, and car-dependent urban developments are more and more the norm."

Water, food, energy, environment: looking beyond city limits

The best ways to address urbanization is one of several broad, increasingly pressing topical areas on the conference agenda. Former UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) chairman Yvo de Boer will be among those leading a discussion on Green Economic Development. Director of Delhi University's Institute of Economic Growth will lead a panel discussion to do with providing access to clean water and healthy food for the poorest segments of national populations, while Imperial College Professor Georgina Mace will lead a discussion of risks, challenges and opportunities related to planetary stewardship.

Planet Under Pressure 2012 attendees will also examine discuss these issues beyond city limits. "A more general theme of the conference is underlined by the urbanization issue - that much of the planet's future is tied up in interconnected issues - climate change and city design, city resource demands and impacts on rural areas, rural food and water productivity and the ability of cities to continue functioning," explains Dr. Mark Stafford Smith, Planet Under Pressure co-chair. "

The deep intensity of interconnectedness of these issues requires an integrated approach, tackling challenges together rather than each individually, one at a time."

A live audio stream http://view6.workcast.net/?pak=8051301437434580&cpak=5876441157257134 of Day 2 (March 27) of Planet Under Pressure 2012 is available from 09:15 GMT.

*Photo courtesy: Paviavio

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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