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Photo: Edmund Garman

In 2007, humanity passed a historic milestone. For the first time ever, more people lived in urban environments – namely, cities – than in rural areas. Since then, the trend has only continued, as the global urban population has grown year over year, to 54 percent of all people today.

Here’s the problem. Cities, everywhere, are not sustainable. In fact, the average city-dweller consumes many more resources, and emits far more greenhouse gas, than their rural compatriots, anywhere in the world. If more people move into unsustainable cities, resource consumption will increase, meaning urbanization could lead to near certain disaster, not just with global climate, but also with regards to air pollution and water.

If more people move into unsustainable cities, resource consumption will increase, meaning urbanization could lead to near certain disaster. (Photo Credit: Edmund Garman / Flickr)

Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo Credit: Edmund Garman / Flickr)

“The world has seen a gathering of its population in urban areas,” said Joan Clos, UN-Habitat Executive Director, in a press statement. “There is a pressing need for a cohesive and realistic approach to urbanization. The current model of urbanization is unsustainable.”

The picture becomes worse when you consider that the true impact of a city is not just what happens within its boundaries. Cities are hubs of consumption, connected by increasingly long and complex supply chains to resource centers around the world. This ecological footprint can be massive. For example, Switzerland, which is highly urbanized, needs an area more that 150 percent larger than its arable land just to feed its population. Add in energy, consumer goods and other imports, and you can clearly see the problem.

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A new book from the Worldwatch Institute, entitled Can a City be Sustainable?, examines these challenges and looks at how cities can become truly sustainable.

“There is a wide range of suitable policies [for city leaders] in the fields of energy supply, transportation, buildings, and waste management and reduction,” Michael Renner, a Senior Researcher with Worldwatch, told Planet Experts. “[Our] goal is to indicate that…we know what the needed policies are. What is required are social, economic, and political [will] to translate these policies into reality.”

Key to this will be reducing cities’ ecological footprints, ensuring that forests and biodiversity around the world are protected even as more people go urban.

Defining Sustainability

Currently, most city sustainability plans focus inwardly – on how to build better transportation systems and infrastructure to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. While these are worthy goals that must be achieved, the wider impacts are being mostly ignored.

“My sense of the matter is that the ‘teleconnections’ between the consumption of urbanites—especially their diets—and the effects on far-off regions where forests are cleared to graze livestock or grow fodder, are mostly invisible,” said Renner.

If more people move into unsustainable cities, resource consumption will increase, meaning urbanization could lead to near certain disaster. (Photo Credit: Jelle / Flickr)

Cows and other livestock are also a major source of global methane emissions. (Photo Credit: Jelle / Flickr)

Unfortunately, the impacts are all too real. Growth in urban demand for meat and soy is what led to the wave of Amazonian deforestation in the early 2000s. More recently, it is the boom in palm oil production that led to the devastating fires that burnt more than two million hectares of rainforests in Indonesia last year and emitted more greenhouses gases last year than all of heavily-urbanized Germany. Add in the devastating environmental impacts of fossil fuel extraction – including fracking – and it’s not a pretty picture.

One of the key strategies that cities can adopt to begin to address this are policies promoting what Worldwatch calls a circular economy.

“[Cities] need to embrace the creation of truly ‘circular economies’ which aim for high rates of recycling, refurbishment, and reuse, and which design and use more durable and repairable products,” Tom Prugh, Senior Researcher at Worldwatch, told Planet Experts.

The book visualizes this circular world as one where nearly all products are recycled, where shops repair appliances and technology, and little waste is produced. Right now, few of these systems exist. Recycling in its current form is energy intensive and includes vast amounts of products – like plastic water bottles, or e-commerce cardboard boxes – that never should have been produced in the first place. As for other items, such as clothing, or appliances, the vast majority of people still choose to toss them when they are torn or broken, and buy new ones often produced abroad.

If more people move into unsustainable cities, resource consumption will increase, meaning urbanization could lead to near certain disaster. (Photo Credit: epSos / Flickr)

Man shopping for clothes in Egypt. (Photo Credit: epSos / Flickr)

Cities, of course, cannot implement policies that promote a circular economy on their own. Often, they lack the jurisdiction. Moreover, this is a problem that cannot be solved in isolation. It demands cooperation.

“Although cities are key engines of the economy, they are deeply embedded into broader structures—regional, national, and global economies,” said Renner. “Therefore, cooperation is important.” This is especially critical if we are to see changes in cities located within emerging economies, who often lack the financial resources to pursue low-carbon development. Quite simply stated, creating sustainable cities will require unprecedented global coordination, resource transfers and action.

A Major Challenge

Making this shift will not be easy. The lives that citizens in industrialized cities are living is incredibly unsustainable, inflicting high costs in carbon and ecology. New technologies and better infrastructure can help, but we need to change our behavior and expectations, too. According to Prugh, ensuring that cities reduce their footprints could mean massive changes in how we live our lives today.

If more people move into unsustainable cities, resource consumption will increase, meaning urbanization could lead to near certain disaster. (Image Credit: New Wind)

A prototype “Wind Tree” made of little turbines could be the answer to generating pockets of off-the-grid energy for urban parks and shopping centers. (Image Credit: New Wind)

“Preserving ecological space for the other living things on Earth means reining in the whole human enterprise: our economies, our energy use, our consumption of material goods, and so on,” said Prugh.

Current movements, such as Global Green Cities, or ICLEI, are building the foundations of knowledge to put us on the right path. The next step is acknowledging the scale of the problem, and building framework to transform our economy into one that is truly sustainable.

Ultimately, the solution to creating truly sustainable cities will be ensuring that cities reconnect with the natural world. To reestablish that connection, city-dwellers must become more aware that every action they take – whether it’s the energy they consume, mode of transportation they take, or, crucially, understanding how and where their products are produced – can be sustainable. This will be key to ensuring that future cities live in balance with our planet.

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