Next year we reach a milestone unprecedented in history when more than half of all people will live in cities. This comes from the UN’s new State of the World Population report, which strikes an interesting tone. The authors acknowledge the huge risks of increasing rates of urbanisation, particularly for the poor, but also maintain that if we get our urban planning and public administration right, we can design out the worst of our environmental and social problems. And anyway, urbanisation is inevitable because you can’t have economic growth without it.
You could argue that here in the developed world, we’ve got enough urban planning experience under our belts to allow us to meet the challenge. Except that the developed world is not where the real expansion is set to take place. Most of the shift will occur in Asia and Africa where “the accumulated urban growth of these two regions during the whole span of history will be duplicated in a single generation.” So to describe the pace of expansion as breakneck is putting it mildly.
London, a city which considers itself forward thinking in terms of urban planning, hasn’t managed to get it right (how’s that sustainable new city coming along in the Thames Gateway, Gordon?). So what hope have Dhaka in Bangladesh or Kano in Nigeria or the new Chinese boom towns got? And unless the exceptions become the rule, unless we suddenly get hundreds of new Curitibas and Wokings, the effects are likely to be drastic. Here are a few issues given little or no air time in the report:
- Already in central London, at a latitude further north than Vancouver BC, because of the urban heat island it is impossible to build a naturally ventilated building that doesn’t overheat. As the climate continues to warm and cities expand, more and more cooling will be required, not just in London but in nearly all cities, with electric air conditioning the default solution. This will accelerate energy consumption, increasing emissions, exacerbating global warming, which will necessitate more cooling…
- The trend in farming will continue towards larger intensive industrial operations, which favour monocropping as well as chemical and genetic solutions to environmental problems. Mechanisation in farming will continue to expand, allowing fewer workers to produce more food but only with increasing use of fossil fuels for machinery and fertiliser. It’s worth noting that currently the primary way to maintain high yields on otherwise overcultivated soil is through the use of nitrate fertilisers which come from fossil fuels. One example of the resulting environmental damage is the annual appearance of the 15,000 km² dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where extensive use of nitrate fertilisers by farmers along the Mississippi River creates sea of deoxygenated water that is uninhabitable for marine animals.
- The supply chain for food will become more centralised and concentrated in the hands of fewer companies. People will have less choice when buying food and will be further removed from the processes by which their food is grown and processed.
- With populations concentrated in cities, even carefully designed cities, the risk of epidemic will be greatly increased. An effect that is likely to be exacerbated by industrial food production and a monolithic supply chain. People will also be more vulnerable to natural disasters, including sea level rise.
Contrary to the assertion in the report, urbanisation isn’t inevitable. In fact, you could argue the opposite. With more than half of us not directly involved in the production of essentials (or unemployed), we’ll require a massive subsidy in the form of cheap energy. But the report doesn’t appear to consider the fact that our current major source of energy is likely to peak in the next decade if it hasn’t already. Other solutions will be needed, almost certainly including a process of simplification, in which the layers of services and administration separating people from the processes by which their needs are met are reduced or removed. This can be a managed process or one that is forced on us by circumstances.
So in reaction to the UN report, I don’t share their optimism that bigger cities will be the solution to social and environmental problems rather than the source. While I’m not qualified to argue whether economic growth is possible without continuing urbanisation, I do feel it might be a moot point. Urbanisation requires massive energy subsidies at a time when energy costs are increasing, global production of petroleum will soon be in decline (if it isn’t already), and no alternative energy sources are ready to provide the levels of energy needed to maintain these cities into the next century.