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Explosive Population Growth: How Will Cities Cope?

July 1, 2010
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Written by Chris Tobias for eco-business.com. The original article can be found here.

Singapore June 29 — There has been a significant shift worldwide of people from rural to urban areas. This shift is predicted to continue in the decades ahead, posing grave questions to the future of human civilisation.

The Asia Pacific region is home to two-thirds of the human population, and it is estimated that by 2050, 70 percent of global population will be residing in cities. On top of existing issues like poverty and corruption, emerging problems like resource security and global climate change are adding to the challenges.

Exploring these themes, the high-level plenary sessions of the World Cities Summit and Singapore Water Week began today with over 2,000 delegates sharing ideas on the sustainable development of cities and water management. Keynote addresses explored these themes from a variety of international perspectives.

Hallmarks of sustainable cities

Each day, some 200,000 people move to cities and towns worldwide. Singapore’s National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan described sustainable cities as those which have good governance, citizen engagement, a balance of economic growth with health of natural environment, good urban planning and innovation, and international collaboration.

“Economic growth does not need to take place at the expense of our living environment,” said Mr Mah.

From cultural revival in Bilbao, Spain to strong urban planning in Curatiba, Brazil, to water management along the Yellow River in China, Minister Mah noted numerous examples of worldwide sustainable development initiatives. Demonstrating its vision and success in urban planning with its new city hall, Bilbao is this year’s Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize winner.

Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-At-Large for Singapore noted that while numerous cities are sited near water, many are facing pressure on water supply due to rapid industrialization and population growth. He also highlighted climate change as a defining issue for urban development.

“Our quest to build sustainable cities is made more difficult by two concurrent crises: the crisis of climate change and global warming, and the irretrievable loss of biodiversity,” Prof. Koh said. In the face of these issues, “The challenge should be to make all our cities livable to all its residents, rich and poor alike,” he said.

The game-changers: water and climate change

Dr Han Seung-soo, the former South Korean prime minister, and UN Special Envoy on Climate Change to Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, said: “We are living in a world where water, especially clean and safe water, is becoming scarce. Water security is… becoming an important issue for governments.”

As urban areas continue to develop at a steady pace, he emphasized that old models of development should be abandoned “We must abandon the paradigm of develop first, clean up later,” he said. As a case in point, South Korea is pursuing a strategy of low carbon green growth. The country is trying to hit two birds with one stone, to create a new engine for growth and ensure environmental sustainability.

South Korea has taken the lead in low carbon green growth, with November 2009’s announcement that the government would target a 30 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Around the same time, the country also established a Global Green Growth Institute. This international non-profit institution was created to help formulate and encourage policy on green growth and addressing climate change.

“This is a struggle against a common enemy, pursue with fearlessness and determination,” Dr. Han said. “Cooperation and solidarity are core values. We must turn climate change into a chance for opportunity for green growth throughout the world.”

Eliminating poverty, enabling sustainable development

“Singapore is a shining example of a sustainable, friendly, and inclusive city,” said Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the UN Human Settlement Programme (UN-HABITAT).

“In Africa, the depth of urban squalor is most critical,” she said. One billion people live in slums worldwide, with some 380 million in Africa, and 520 million in Asia. “The existence of slums in so many countries reflects poorly on the political will of these countries,” Mrs. Tibaijuka said.

“We are keen in supporting participatory government, involving women and children who inhabit these cities.” Mrs. Tibaijuka pointed out that often not all voices are heard in development decisions, and that women and children frequently bear the brunt of poor policy and planning.

She also resonated with Prof. Koh’s concern on climate change. In an already complicated development arena, “it has already been pointed out that climate change has upset the equation,” she said. “We are faced with new challenges.”

Apac: essential to get right

Within the Asia Pacific Region, cities are home to some 1.6 billion people, tapped to increase to 2.3 billion by 2025. To provide for the needs of this expanding population is an increasing challenge. Cities currently consume around 67 percent of total energy use, generate 300 million tonnes of solid waste per year, and pollute mass bodies of water so that life cannot exist.

Over 50 per cent of Apac residents live in low-lying areas, susceptible to floods and typhoons that can wipe out years of urban development and poverty alleviation in a matter of hours. While natural disasters affect rich and poor alike, the poor are greatly affected because they do not have the assets to deal with the crisis.

“We simply do not have the luxury of growing first and cleaning up later,” said Dr Noeleen Heyzer, UN Under-Secretary General and &Executive Secretary Economic & UN Social Commission for the Asia and Pacific. “If we get [development] right for Asia Pacific, we get it right for two-thirds of humanity,” she said.

Urban Asia reveals persistent disparities in income and services. “We need to rethink our paradigm and lifestyles,” Dr. Heyzer said. “What can future cities look like?”

Reshaping the urban environment is one factor, but reshaping human lifestyles also needs addressing. “We need to engage civil society and businesses to promote more sustainable lifestyles,” Dr Heyzer said. “We need to start internalizing the cost of using resources, particularly water and energy… We need to map the vulnerable areas of our cities and integrate disaster preparedness in our urban planning. Our institutions must be inclusive, integrative, and adaptive.”

Lessons from low-lying landmass: The Netherlands delta experience

Outside of Asia Pacific, the Netherlands has large amounts of low-lying land area. The total flood-prone area is 59 per cent of land total, and this includes areas critical to economic stability. The population was 11 million in 1960, and has grown to 16.5 million in 2010.

With this growth, infrastructure development has increased enormously, and it was acknowledged that adequate protection from potential flooding was needed. The country has extensive, proactively designed delta protection infrastructure which is set to expand in the coming years.

For example, around the port city of Rotterdam, different dike, lock, and barrier systems are being explored with urban planning impacts, water management strategy, and port impacts in mind.

“The country is looking further ahead to the end of the century to plan its infrastructure so future generations will inherit a safe country in which to live, and a secure economy,” said Mr. Wim Kuijken, Government Commissioner for the Delta Programme, the Netherlands. The delta developments will be executed by 2050, and supported by legislation, the Delta Act.

“We want the Netherlands to maintain a pleasant, open landscape, not become a watertight bunker,” Mr. Kuijken said. “Looking further ahead allows us time to incorporate both safety and attractiveness into our plans.” Stakeholder engagement, public private partnerships, and cooperation of research institutions have been part of this process, according to Mr. Kuijken.

“We use natural processes at the coastline wherever possible, and give rivers the room they need, while making water our ally and making our country safe. [Its] an all adaptive and comprehensive approach is needed to secure our future,” he said.

India slated for massive growth, infrastructure investment

Public infrastructure is also big in developing countries. In rapidly-growing India, some 80 percent of the country’s infrastructure is being created afresh for a young and growing population. Amitabh Kant, CEO and Managing Director of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor said that by 2040, the majority of Indian citizens will be living in an urban environment.

The planned corridor would provide hope for some 750 million people, or more than double the population of the United States. The Indians are working with a consortium of four Japanese firms to develop and master plan the projects.

“Today’s world is complex and crowded,” Mr. Kant said. “Cities need to be dense, compact, polycentric, resource effective, and public transport centric. It’s also about soft elements too like culture and arts,” he said, two elements that make cities truly livable.

Globally, these challenges will define our future. How governments, citizens, and businesses act now will have significant results in years to come.

For more articles and information about the World Cities Summit, visit the official webpage here.

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