Increasing number of experts are now highlighting the impact of our cities as a key concern globally. As we pass the 50 per cent mark for urban population worldwide, it is becoming evident that with this have come a wide range of social, environmental, economic, cultural and governance problems. Most of the solutions are not ‘rocket science’ – technologies and tools are increasingly available but good policies and community engagement are vital for achieving a low carbon society.
Research figures attribute between 40 to 80 per cent of greenhouse gasses to cities. India has some of the most populated cities in the world. Given the density of population and in many cases poorly planned communities and infrastructure; the cost of adaptation to the effects of climate change is going to be very high. Reversing urbanisation trends is more difficult in the short term than dealing with the problems within the cities. The disparity between the haves and have-nots in cities is increasing even more rapidly and this causes other social problems.
Some key issues that face cities today and which need to be addressed on a priority basis are:
Urban energy: Providing energy to all is a major task even considering the long term environmental impacts of pollution. Sustaining economic growth (a lot of which is urban) requires energy and centralised supply that is high carbon based or high risk based (nuclear) needs to be considered with care. Renewables are a clear option and cities now need to explore decentralised power (urban based). Buildings provide a very good platform for both improving efficiency in use and integrating renewables. Together with this there is the need for smarter grid infrastructure to manage peak time and off peak demand. A smart city in the future will have smarter grids and high levels of onsite generated energy, higher levels of end use efficiency and a very engaged end user community.
Urban water: The days of reliance on outside water supply and acquifer are limited. Cities need to ensure a high level of recover, reduce, recycle and reuse of the water that is received through rainfall. Water sensitive urban design is critical to good water management.
Urban waste: Waste is a major concern in all cities. It is not only about how waste is collected and removed but also about how imaginative one is in recovering, reusing and recycling from the waste chain. This can provide innovative solutions for a cyclic economy of the future.
Urban transport: The growth of cities with car dependency has led to high levels of pollution and chaos on our roadways. The health impact of all this alone runs in billions of dollars a year. Good policy is critical to choice of travel modes and transit options can have a major impact in cleaning up our cities.
Good land use planning: Together with all the above good land use planning is critical if we are to improve our cities. Liveable cities which are concerned about the health and well being of their citizens have developed masterplans which rely on good strategy for all the above services along with zoning for residential, industrial, commercial and other areas. The micro-climate of the urban environment can be much better managed with urban vegetation.
The problems in cities seem to be getting worse faster than improvements from planning strategies (in most rapidly developing countries). Community education and social change behaviour actions will be required to make major strides in making our cities better. Sustainability for cities means reducing the ecological footprint (resource inputs and waste outputs) whilst simultaneously improving the quality of life (health, housing, accessibility, community etc.). The path to a low carbon city of the future offers opportunities for economic and social development by capturing innovations in product and tool development and for social innovations through community engagement. Countries like India are very well placed to lead in this area.