In the last decade, we’ve seen the planet warm 0.13°C, 73 hectares of forest give way to farmland, and sea levels rise 36.7 mm. In the next 10 years, these trends are expected to continue as world population grows by 900 million people. By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. Fortunately, these cities are generally more energy-efficient than areas of low-density sprawl. In the United States, households in urban core neighborhoods emit 50% less greenhouse gas than average, while households in distant suburbs emit up to twice as much greenhouse gas as the average household. Since urbanites tend to own smaller homes, they use less energy for heating and cooling. They also tend to live closer to work, which saves on transportation costs. Dense patterns of development also encourage a more efficient use of space, which helps to preserve the natural environment. Even if you make your home eco-friendly, it’s location will matter more than your improvements.
Even as most new growth follows this relatively sustainable development pattern, public investment is required to achieve the full social and environmental benefits of city life. Many global cities, especially in the United States, face housing supply crisis, which pushes up rents and works to exclude lower-income people from urban life. Encouraging high-rise, mixed-use development through the use of expedited permitting is essential to control rents and make cities inclusive. Additionally, with increasing density, investment in public transit is necessary to limit space required for parking, control traffic, and provide mobility for those who can’t drive. Each of these initiatives, working in conjunction, would bring more people into sustainable ways of life in urban areas.
However, at the current pace of growth, even the best application of urban policy won’t be enough to slow climate change enough to prevent its most harmful effects. That’s why implementation of technology is required to solve this problem. Technological advances, such as more fuel-efficient cars and connected sensors, are the only way to improve sustainability without reducing consumption and lowering people’s standard of living. But, even with research and development complete, public and private investment is necessary to achieve the benefits of smart cities and enterprises.
Ultimately, urban sustainability is required to combat climate change and preserve natural environments. But it’s also inextricably linked to the project of making cities accessible to people of all classes, races, and income levels. And while public investment is required on both fronts, continued technological advancement and implementation is required to fully realize the benefits of a sustainable city.
Photo: JR P via Flickr