The urban imperatives

The urban imperatives 

With more than half of all humanity now condensed in an area little more than two percent of the planet's land cover, urban infrastructure has become one of the world's greatest challenges.

Over the past century, mankind has made a mad dash for the city: in 1900 only 13 percent of people lived in urban areas; today that number is 51 percent. And while North America and Europe were the focus of this historic growth, the balance has now shifted to the East. By 2050, the urban population is expected to jump by more than 3 billion souls, concentrated in Asia and Africa. In India alone, urban populations are expected to increase by at least 700 million, the equivalent of about 500 new cities.

Regeneration for the next generation

The demands on urban infrastructure have reached an unprecedented level. In both the developing world and the developed, existing urban infrastructure is in urgent need of revitalization. Much of the iconic infrastructure of mature global cities was first developed before 1900 (New York's Brooklyn Bridge, London's Underground, and Mumbai's Suburban Railway to name a few). Many rely on poorly designed or badly maintained facilities that are, in many cases, more of an impediment to growth than a catalyst.

Most pressing of all is the need for new infrastructure development to meet the basic needs of growing urban populations. Urbanization can be a catalyst for productivity, growth and technological advancement. But, without planning, it can create centres for deprivation, violence and disease.

Growth of African Cities

Managing the pace of change

Rapid urbanization isn't the only significant change facing urban infrastructure planners. Cities must adapt to new technologies that make transport and housing more energy efficient. In some cases, cities such as Bangalore or Masdar City will be built around new technologies; in other cases, cities built around existing industries, such as Detroit, must adapt to changing times.

The global attitude towards the environment has also changed dramatically over the past twenty years. Then, the United Nations was just convening its historic first conference on Climate Change in Rio de Janeiro and few - if any - households had ever even heard of a carbon footprint. Today, by some estimates, urban areas now emit more than 70 percent of the world's greenhouse gasses and - of that - residential houses and cars make up almost half. Cities now aspire to be more integrated, less car-dependent and more mass transit and pedestrian-friendly.

For today's governments and city planners, financial sustainability is every bit as important as environmental. Unprecedented levels of investment and maintenance spend must be planned and prioritized in the face of tightened budgets and limited resources. New models for delivering efficient outputs over the long term must be developed and evaluated, and their benefits must be sold to the public.

Advancing through adversity

Against this bewildering backdrop of (often conflicting) priorities, many city leaders are finding creative ways to push ahead and - recognizing the clear economic, social and environmental benefits of urban infrastructure - are transforming their cities for the future.

Mumbai, for example, is not only forging ahead with an ambitious set of mass transit projects aimed at reducing congestion and carbon emissions, they have also incentivized the developers working on those projects to build tenement housing for some of the 60 percent of Mumbai residents that currently live in slums (full story here).

For others, like the Knowledge Economic City in Saudi Arabia, a Greenfield situation provides a clean slate on which to build a new city that incorporates state-of-the-art facilities and smart technologies to both drive economic growth and raise the standard of living in the Kingdom (full story here).

Learning from others

But most importantly, cities and their leaders are increasingly willing to learn lessons from other jurisdictions and adopt best practices into their own urban areas. Canada's Bus Rapid Transit system, Singapore's water conservation policies, European-styled bicycle paths and many other urban innovations are quickly being adopted, adapted and implemented in cities halfway around the world.

This type of collaboration will become increasingly important to city leaders. Infrastructure is - on the whole - incredibly expensive to design, build and operate and cities can't afford to get it wrong. Smart grids are a case in point: today, many jurisdictions are seeking to simultaneously reduce power consumption and manage their electricity grid while keeping costs affordable to consumers. And while every city faces unique power challenges of their own, some are finding that results from existing projects around the world help new projects anticipate and manage challenges that derailed their peers in other regions.

Clearly, every city is unique and must respond to the specific challenges of their particular situation. Some cities may be too small or too thinly developed to warrant a mass transit system. Others (like London, New York and Hong Kong) already possess highly efficient transit and must look to other means to reduce congestion and carbon emissions while still enhancing the quality of life for urban dwellers.

But to balance the demands of a growing urban population, tightening financial resources and increasing concern over the natural environment, greater collaboration will be required. Today's city leaders face a massive task, but they do not face it alone. The C40 project (full story here) is a case in point: brought together by the common objective of reducing urban carbon emissions, the group of large global cities works closely with national governments, private enterprises and non-governmental organizations to develop approaches and initiatives to not only share best practices, but combine as a strong voice to encourage other cities to follow in their footsteps.

It will take more initiatives like these - and a significant amount of political support - to start to change the current dynamics of urban infrastructure. But change we must. There really is no alternative.

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