China, cradle of one of the world’s first great urban civilisations, is now taking lessons from the UK on developing cities that are set to become the primary environment of modern man. Jon Herbert considers the issues.

By 2050, it is estimated that more than 70% of the world’s burgeoning population will live in cities.

Modern UK cities often appear to be a huddled compromise of social practice within very tight urban spaces on a small island. Recreating them globally seems unlikely.

Global precedent

In fact, Britain is now a world leader in high-density, sustainable city living that is becoming increasingly important as the global population continues to rise relentlessly with strong consumer and lifestyle ambitions.

This is a lesson Chinese cities are taking on board. British planners have gone to China to advise on alternatives to the Los Angeles-type urban sprawl that it is feared could make combating climate change impossible.

Europe’s densely populated cities work because they increasingly include low-carbon buildings — in construction and in use — plus modern public transport systems.

A report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has concluded that an additional two billion people are expected to make their homes and livelihoods within the built environment in the coming decades.

However, with astute planning, some extra investment, liveable new cities of the future are quite feasible, the commission adds.

Carbon peak – but not just yet

With air quality now an obvious hazard and growing ambitions for improving living standards, China has of late taken environmental concerns much more seriously. Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli announced recently that the Asian economic giant can foresee a peaking of its greenhouse gas emissions, albeit not until 2030, and is already investing deeply in green technologies.

A team from the UK’s Town and Country Planning Association recently met officials from the Chinese Government’s economic research agency to discuss low-carbon building. Another similar meeting was held in the city of Shenyang, which has a population of more than six million. The UK squad then passed on their ideas on to the Chinese national academy of mayors.

Garden cities

China’s growing urban problems are compounded by an agricultural land crisis in the countryside. At the same time, it is known that the mayors of a number of rapidly growing cities are now open to far less energy-intensive ways of achieving growth targets.

The British Garden City lesson is that it is quite possible to build parks, schools and public transport systems very close to both employment and residential areas to regenerate existing communities and ensure the living conditions of new conurbations.

Population epidemic

The critical role of future cities is reinforced by the findings of a new report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in October 2014.

It warns that restricting population growth will not solve global environment and sustainability problems in the short term and that the total number of humans on the planet in 86 years’ time — at the end of this century — could rise from the current 7 billion to up to 12 billion.

The study notes that 14% of all people who have ever lived are alive today and driving increasing urbanisation as a series of crises hits the rural world.

Even a mid-century third world war that could cost two billion lives would only marginally depress the trend of global population growth over the next 100 years, warns Professor Corey Bradshaw of the University of Adelaide. He added, “We’ve gone past the point where we can do it easily, just by the sheer magnitude of the population, what we call the demographic momentum. We just can’t stop it fast enough.”

Environment impacts have been growing not only because of basic numbers but also because of rising levels of consumer affluence.

The study also calculated that if China’s vaunted one-child per family were implemented worldwide, population levels would still be between 5 and 10 billion.

Wiser living

Yet, while urbanisation will become increasingly important in sustainable — and hopefully not survivalist — living, many major cities than themselves are suffering strategically from environmental impacts.

Take Boston Massachusetts. Boston shares a problem common with many coastal cities. Along with the whole US east coast, it is sinking as sea levels are rising. Many of its streets are vulnerable to deep flooding.

If, as scientists predict, sea levels rise by up to 2 metres (about 6 feet), Boston will be in permanent trouble. Currently, Back Bay is 4 feet above sea level. The International Panel on Climate Change forecasts rises of between 3 feet and 6.5 feet.

Rain and snow fall have been more intense in recent years. Now, instead of fighting the rising water, Boston is taking a lesson from Venice and Amsterdam. Its elegant 19th century Back Bay housing district — a former tidal lagoon — could be turned into a network of canals.

Boston is the eighth most vulnerable city in the world; New York is the third. Miami is at greatest risk.

Zero impact

So, how do cities develop a sustainable environment?

Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City has been designed by Foster and Partners as the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste, zero-water urban oasis, future-proofed on an epic scale against all conceivable environmental impacts. It will develop and commercialise renewable energy technology, including the capture and permanent storage of carbon dioxide emissions.

It also contains innovative basic design features. The temperature in many of its streets is just 20°C compared with 35°C in the desert outside due to the construction of a 45m-high wind tower that sucks air from above and pushes a cooling breeze into thoroughfares below.

Buildings stand close together to form shade. Taps and switches are replaced by motion sensors. But Masdar still has to capture the vibrancy of a living urban community.

Green transport is key

A new study, A Global High Shift Scenario released at UN Habitat 111 to coincide with the recent UN climate summit believes the key to clean, more pleasant and fast-moving cities is efficient “green” public transport systems that entice people away from their cars and gridlock.

It envisages a “high shift scenario” whereby emissions from urban transport could be cut by more than 50% by 2050, saving the world economies in excess of $100 trillion and 1.4 million premature deaths each year from poor air quality.

Without radical change, say the study authors, emissions from urban transport will almost double from 2010 to 2050.

The secret is to outlaw the car, which has been the globe’s fastest growing source of carbon dioxide, and provide world-class rapid transit systems where cars used to run.

According to co-author Michael Replogle of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), modern cities are building the equivalent of a subway “tube” system at ground level for “a fraction of the cost” of going underground, plus better places to walk and cycle. The main barrier to change, he says, is inertia among political leaders and decision-makers.

What is required, he adds, is for governments to work with development banks and kindred institutions to help unlock the huge sums of potential finance looking for sound investment opportunities.

Unlike energy strategies that require considerable investment in expensive new innovative technologies, clear and safe cities are simply about putting into place tried and tested modern transport systems.

After that it’s a stroll in the park.

First published by Croner-i on 12 January 2015

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