This blogpost is a recap of the podcast “The World according to Gram: Future Cities” aired on 28 November 2017 on the Danish public radio station, P1.
At present, 4 billion people worldwide live in urban settlements. By 2050, this number is expected to reach 6.5 billion. Not only are the numbers massive, the process is also happening with immense speed. We need to rethink the structuring of our cities in the light of these new challenges to secure future access to clean drinking water, fresh air, efficient infrastructure, adequate housing etc.
In the podcast “The World according to Gram” broadcasted on 28 November 2017, three experts with different backgrounds within the field of urban planning address the issue of how to design cities that are fit to meet the challenges of tomorrow. The experts are all close partners of IFHP. Neel Strøbæk is Director of Planning and Urban Design at the engineering consultancy company Ramboll. Simon Kjær Hansen is Director of Regions at the city network C40, and Jan Gehl is Founder and Senior Advisor at Gehl People, an architect company based in Copenhagen, New York and San Francisco renowned for their efforts to create better ‘cities for people’. The Danish journalist Steffen Gram is hosting the broadcast.
Technological innovation requires political organisation
The list of challenges to be met varies according to the specific geography placement of each city. But one trend that will affect all is the growing urbanisation. The trend is most pressing in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America, where migration from the countryside to urban areas is increasing every day. In Europe, the expected population growth in cities is mainly due to higher life expectancy and foreign immigration.
The rapid urbanisation poses a particularly difficult task to cities in developing countries such as Beijing and New Delhi. These cities face a double-sided challenge: Not only do they have to reduce their carbon emissions and prepare for climate change, they are also struggling with severe poverty.
- The urbanisation in India happens with an almost explosive speed, and at the same time as adjusting to this expansion the cities must keep up their anti-poverty initiatives (..) It all happens so fast that they won’t be able to handle the pollution, but we also know that pollution has a price. Studies from India and China show that pollution cost around 5, 7 or even 10% of the countries’ GDP’s. The great challenge is to save the environment without any extra expenses. We haven’t discovered that formula yet, says Neel Strøbæk, Director of Planning and Urban Design at Ramboll.
Another great challenge when working with climate adaptation is the different local management structures in cities. In Denmark, the local municipalities are deeply involved in budgeting and master-planning the cities, but in countries like India the political structure is organised differently. This makes it hard to implement best practices from one city to another.
- In India, they have all the smart technology needed to transform the cities, but the political structure makes it difficult to implement in practice (..) India has some of the best legislation, but implementation and administration is hard due to a very segregated organisational structure. Holistic planning is not just a matter of technical expertise, but also depend many other things, Neel Strøbæk explains.
Urbanisation has positive side-effects
Despite the many challenges urbanisation causes to our cities, there is no need to despair. All three experts agree that growing urbanisation is also an opportunity to create more integrated, collective solutions that can secure the wellbeing of the planet as well as human beings in the future.
- In the long run, urbanisation serves the environment better because it is easier to control carbon emissions and secure financial development when people are not too spread out geographically, says Jan Gehl, Founder and Senior Adviser at Gehl People Architects.
Simon Kjær Hansen, Director of Regions at C40, agrees:
- Many of the best environmental solutions necessitates that a city has a certain density. This is for example one of the things that has helped put Copenhagen on the map as an international climate leader. Copenhageners have very low carbon footprints which can be partly explained by the extensive district heating system, that was built in the 70’ties. A system like that require a certain amount of people to be financially sound. The same can be said of metro systems and bike lanes, which are more attractive to use in areas that are less geographically spread out.
- Manhattan is another great example of this: The citizens of Manhattan have a remarkably lower carbon footprint than the rest of New York’s citizens because using a private car for transportation is a less attractive choice in the dense city centre, he says.
Many Asian cities will expand to become megacities within the next coming years, and this puts great pressure on the cities’ infrastructure. But size is not necessarily a problem, according to Jan Gehl:
- I have worked in New York, and even though there is a vast population of 8 million people living in the city, it is a well-functioning city. What is key in big cities like New York is to create local neighbourhoods with each their identities and local collective solutions, he says.
The city versus the nation-state
While this is all very comforting, there is an important question yet to be asked, according to the host Steffen Gram. The remaining question is what role the cities can play in battling climate change if they are not backed by their respective nation-states: How much can cities and regions do in their own rights?
The United States under the Trump administration is an illustrative example of this. During his election campaign, President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the country from the Paris agreement signed by Obama at COP21 in 2015. But many progressive American cities still have ambitious climate programs. Can these cities still make a difference? the host, Steffen Gram, asks the experts.
- Opposite to what one might expect, leading climate-friendly American cities have not responded with resignation to the Trump administration’s neglect of the climate agenda. On the contrary, many cities seem even more eager to combat climate change, and more than 300 cities have already made a claim that ‘we’re still in’ and will continue to work towards the goals laid out in the Paris agreement, says Simon Kjær Hansen, and continues:
- Cities can play a major role in the transition to a more sustainable and resilient world. Cities are responsible for approximately 70% of all energy related carbon emissions and have a long list of binding partnerships where they commit to working towards ambitious climate goals. They report to one another on a yearly basis, and this collaboration and transparency about the process make cities very apt for the task of battling climate change.
Future cities are social cities
At IFHP, we also believe that cities are important drivers in the transition towards a more sustainable future. But with the accelerating speed with which the urbanisation is taking place, it is crucial that we act immediately if our cities are to stand a chance.
So where to begin? We want cities that are clean, safe, green, affordable to live in, easy to navigate in and that provide all the welfare services needed to live a balanced life. Cities that are built for people. We must create 360-degree solutions that consider all aspects at once and avoid the pitfalls of silo-mentality. Environmental, financial and social sustainability need to go hand in hand if our cities and their inhabitants are to thrive. A great example of how these three aspects of sustainability are combined in practice is the Copenhagen Cloudburst Mitigation Plan. The plan combines so-called cloudburst boulevards which effectively directs water out of the city with blue-green surfaces that can retain rainwater locally while also serving as recreational areas for the citizens. This enhances the overall liveability of the city, is a climate-friendly solution and a financially sound long-term investment.
In conclusion, there is no one place to begin, but a huge network of interdependent structures to be identified, analysed and schematised. It is crucial that cities share their experiences and best practices if we are to understand the relations between the different factors, how they differ geographically and how to use this knowledge in practice. We must keep debating, sharing and researching. IFHP is committed to partake in this great task in the coming years.
By Ina Johanne Mønsted, Communications Manager, IFHP
Listen to the podcast (in Danish) here.