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The World's Cities Are Set To Grow Explosively and Maybe That's Not a Bad Thing

A study published last week in "the journal": of the National Academy of Sciences forecasts massive global urbanization between now and 2030. Researchers estimate total expansion of the planet's...

by Mclean Gordon
Sep 24 2012, 3:00pm

A study published last week in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences forecasts massive global urbanization between now and 2030. Researchers estimate total expansion of the planet’s urban area over this time at 463,000 square miles, or 1.2 million square kilometers. That’s equivalent to 20,000 football fields of newly urbanized land every day. Fifty-five percent of this urban sprawl will be in Asia, with China and India being the main drivers. Parts of Africa will also see a radical urban transformation.

A Nasa video showing current urbanization from space

The environmental risks of such large-scale urbanization include deforestation, species extinctions, and increased industrial activities in the hinterlands that will continue to provide the raw materials required to keep cities buzzing. With an estimated total urban population increase of 1.8 billion people over the next two decades, the prospect of adding another one-and-a-third Chinas to the world should give pause to any sober mind.

Another recent study published by the interaction council of Former Heads of State and Government, an organization that includes Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, and many others on its roster, states that, “by 2030, demand for water in India and China, the most populous nations on Earth, will exceed their current supplies.” The study lays out the apocalyptic vision of global water wars.

The Landscape of the Future?

Potential for Improvement

While it’s easy to imagine the menacing worst-case scenario — over-expansion and the ensuing total war as thirst and famine send our species into a downward spiral of savage competition for increasingly scarce resources, for instance — it is also possible to envision a better outcome. For one thing, urban centers tend to be far more energy efficient than their suburban and rural neighbors. New York City might look like a concrete matrix where the environment is a forgotten ghost locked in the basement, but it’s actually a true paragon of efficiency. The average New Yorker consumes roughly 90 gallons of gasoline per year, which matches the national average circa 1920. The average New York City household consumes less than half the national average of kilowatt hours per year. If New York City were its own state, it would rank 51st in per-capita energy usage.

These statistics open at least a small window of hope onto the terrifying future of an urban planet. While today’s study on the probable urban expansion of the next two decades lays out a litany of possible catastrophes, it concludes on an upbeat note:

For guidance on how policies could help, we should look to Aldo Leopold and the prescient words of Sir Alex Gordon, past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Gordon's ideas of "long life," "loose fit," and "low energy" suggest that future urbanization should avoid infrastructure "lock-in," be adaptable to unforeseen demands, and have low embodied and operating energy needs. Applying Leopold's "land ethic" to the concept of urban sustainability requires that the connections between urban processes and land-use change are made explicit and that future considerations about sustainable cities incorporate direct and indirect changes in the land brought about by urbanization.

Aldo Leopold, (1887-1948) was an American environmentalist and author. He started his career in 1909 working for the U.S. Forest Service in the southwest until 1924. During this time, he developed the first comprehensive management plan for the Grand Canyon. In 1924 he moved to Wisconsin to work for the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory until 1933, when he took a position teaching in the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Wisconsin.

Central to Leopold’s ideas was his divergence from the prevalent utilitarian school of conservationism represented by Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. The utilitarians saw conservation as a means necessary to maintaining a supply of natural resources for human exploitation. Leopold took a much broader naturalistic stand, declaring, “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” By referencing Leopold as a cornerstone of responsible urbanization policy, the authors of today’s study are invoking that land ethic by which people include the soil, air, water, plants, and wildlife as part of their own community.

Sir Alexander Gordon (1917-1999), became president of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1971, just two years prior to OPEC’s oil embargo that kicked off the first major fuel shortages in Europe and the United States. Though his ideas were not popular when he first espoused them at the 1972 RIBA Conference, his vision of “long life, loose-fit, low energy” may hold the key to transforming the predicted proliferation of urban building projects into something beneficial for people and the environmental resources they depend on. By long life, Gordon meant that new construction projects should be undertaken with an eye towards sticking around for as long as possible. By loose-fit, he meant new buildings should use designs that make them adaptable to the widest possible range of future use requirements. By low energy, he meant simply that architects and builders should put a high premium on how new structures make efficient use of energy resources.

While these ideas sound simple and irrefutable, they get surprisingly short shrift in mainstream building trends. As urban infrastructure sprawls out to cover more and more of the globe, Gordon’s simple mantra could make the difference between global catastrophe and efficient urbanization.

water crisis
energy efficiency
urbanization population boom