New visions and challenge for mega-cities–oecology and economy

9 12 2010

Mario J. Molina, born in 1943 in Mexico City, is a Mexican-American chemist. In 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the elimination of chlorofluorocarbon gases and the protection of the ozone layer.

For the first time in human history society has created since the beginning of this century, many complex urban conglomerates. Our world is dominated by an increasing number of megacities, where human society has to deal with the living environment of millions of people, supplying them with enormous amounts of energy, drinking water, food and all the material assets that improve our quality of life through multiple services, as well as recreational and working spaces.

Due to their size, coupled with their intense activity, cities no longer impact the environment on just a local level. The urban metabolism has slowly been integrated with that of the planet, to the extent that a simple action such as the use of microwave ovens to heat food has global repercussions as it is carried out billion of times a year throughout the world.

As reservoirs of energy and materials, megacities require the best available technologies to increase their efficiency and reduce their footprint on the planet, especially with regard to climate change. The World Expo Shanghai 2010 will be a unique event to envision better cities that are cleaner and more efficient.

I am confident that the Expo will present new urban concepts based on advanced technologies for the construction of green buildings and green urban communities, specifically designed to preserve the environment in harmony with nature. Sustainable construction is today a profitable enterprise for individuals and governments, but it also brings us closer to a desired and necessary future of sustainability.

China has the highest rate of urbanization of the planet. Millions of people are migrating from the countryside to the city in search for better living standards and quality of life.

Great opportunities

The size of new Chinese cities and their consumption of energy and materials are well above those of most cities in Asia, Africa or Latin America. The world watches with amazement, but also with a certain degree of concern, the growth of China’s economy, its determination to advance with new urban models, and its enormous creativity in the development and application of the most recent advances in technology on a large scale.

We see extraordinary business opportunities in the growth of Chinese cities, and witness the creation of new and concentrated markets with high purchasing power. Furthermore, this growth has coincided with the opening up of the country to the world, establishing an active interchange of goods and services that have the positive effect of strengthening and accelerating the globalization process.

From the environmental perspective of the main challenge facing humanity which is climate change, the expectations for Shanghai World Expo are based on the world’s hope of achieving massive and accelerated use of technologies with low greenhouse gas emissions.

Billions of people in the world wish to enjoy the urban comforts that many Western and Asian cities have reached by means of the indiscriminate use of natural resources for centuries. Without denying this legitimate desire, today we know that in order to eliminate poverty and achieve an equitable development of modern societies, the global phenomena of pollution and degradation of ecosystems have to be contained and reversed.

This is not an easy goal since we have to achieve it at the same time that we elevate people’s quality of life. Therefore, it is urgent that we find new ways to organize and develop cities by using energy and material resources that we take from nature in a rational and sustainable manner. Is this really possible? I am convinced that it is; as a global civilization we have now created many of the tools required for predicting the consequences of our actions, and the challenge is now to use these tools to minimize the negative consequences of urban growth.

Supachai Panitchpakdi,born 1946,is the Secretary-General of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Prior to that appointment, he served as Director-General of the World Trade Organization for three years, beginning in September 2002.

The world’s boldest and often most interesting cities are pacesetters, pioneering new solutions to population density and space limitations, showcasing new architecture and applying technological innovations that spread far beyond the city limits. Above all, they are efficient in every sense–and the most efficient cities are those where innovation plays a leading role.

Today’s cities, embedded through socio-economic means and modern technologies in vast networks, are also increasingly global. These networks, with their myriad nodes and linkages, both physical and formless, have quickly become a prerequisite for economic development and growth.

Global networks of cities have transformed the relations of economics and ecology into forms that are still barely understood. The very opportunities that a city prides itself on offering also constitute one of its greatest challenges. Urban dwellers’aspirations for more space and better housing generally result in further pressure on the city’s environment. The mega-city phenomenon that characterizes much urban development in the developing world not only exerts tremendous stress on the environment but also incurs significant costs, both for individuals and for society as a whole. Many of these cities are barely habitable, by other standards. They are crowded, unhygienic and dangerous. Slum dwellers further suffer from a lack of durable shelter, reliable access to safe drinking water, proper sewage systems or any of the other benefits of city life. The mega-city–and the potentially disastrous environmental and socio-economic consequences of its labour-seeking migration, competing land uses, and air and water degradation–is a microcosm for the planet.

Significant global climate change, water shortages and the need for cleaner and renewable energy sources require a new approach to urban development. Cities of the future will need to be increasingly interconnected yet also more self-reliant. Renewable energy enables a city to reduce its dependence on fossil energy and its ecological footprint. Renewable energy production that occurs within cities, integrated into their land use and manmade environment, can be a key driver of the urban economy. Urban planning can thus contribute to global sustainable development through strategic applications of technology and management at the local level. Innovation in this regard is important in creating the kind of eco-efficiency gains that are required.

In global cities, the most effective and efficient way of providing energy has traditionally been through larger centralized production facilities and extensive distribution systems. However, renewable energy-driven, low-carbon cities may employ a decentralized energy production model, whereby energy is produced closer to where it is consumed, and indeed often directly by those who consume it. This distributed form offers a number of benefits, including energy savings, lower vulnerability and greater resilience in the face of natural and manmade disasters. The same approach can be applied to a city’s water systems. Some of the small-scale, local water systems that have proven effective employ nanotechnology applications in the purification and treatment process.

Experience has shown that cities can best tackle environmental issues through a strong planning system that ensures cooperation and communication at the local, municipal and national levels. Urban planners can make cities more efficient and liveable by planning and investing holistically in building construction, transport, energy sources, communications, water management and sanitation. Their challenge is to combine new technology, city design and community-based innovation, for example in creating the infrastructure needed to support solar and wind power on a scale sufficient to power a city.

Such green initiatives have already begun to emerge around the world. In order to accommodate a projected doubling of the population while also resisting further outward sprawl, the San Francisco Bay Area has designed a new infrastructural network that is able to collect and distribute water, power, fuel and goods, and to accommodate the transport of residents and tourists alike. In Europe, 30 cities have been selected as pioneers to deploy high-tech energy systems, with half of the power grid able to handle renewable energy using“smart”systems. Such high-tech solutions to climate and energy challenges are aimed at giving European businesses a headstart as the world switches to low-carbon energy. These“smart cities”will be the nuclei from which smart networks, a new generation of buildings, and alternative transport means will develop.

Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates is an important first example of a city built from scratch with 100% renewable energy and zero car use. Another example is North Port Quay in Western Australia, which will be home to 10,000 households and is designed to be 100% renewable through solar PV, small wind turbines called wind pods, and a nearby wave power system. The development will be dense but walkable; an all-electric public and private transport system will be entirely linked to the renewable power through vehicle battery storage.

In the short run, however, viewing cities as a complex set of metabolic flows may be critical in helping them deal with reliance on resources and energy from other regions. Policies may include sustainable sourcing agreements, region-to-region trade agreements, and urban procurement systems based on green certification systems. Rapid redevelopment of the city and its infrastructure will also rely on sourcing examples from other cities, sharing best practices and lessons learnt.

The choice of Shanghai as host city for World Expo 2010 is eminently appropriate. Shanghai is a city that has made itself global by employing state-of-the-art technologies in urban planning. In becoming one of the centres of the world economy, Shanghai–vibrant, handsome, and resolutely modern–has experienced faster growth than any other global city in the past 15 years. This rapid growth has produced many of the problems common to other mega-cities. The city has had to cope with population increase by physically increasing in size, through the development of neighbouring areas and satellite towns. But if necessity is the mother of invention, then it is to be welcomed, Dongtan is a new city near Shanghai that is designed to use 100% renewable energy in its buildings. It will be self-sufficient in water and food sourced from the surrounding farmland and will feature a zero-carbon public transport system powered entirely by renewable energy.

The urban eco-efficiency agenda is crucial to ensuring a green and sustained global urban future. Much work needs to be undertaken in sustainable urban development by the global and local communities of planners, politicians, environmentalists, the private sector and civil society–especially in the developing world. And if the cities of the developing world are to be green–if they are to survive–they will have to draw heavily on innovation.

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