Cities take up 2 percent of the earth’s surface, but they account for 60 to 80 percent of energy consumption and 75 percent of carbon emissions. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and that number is expected to grow to 75 percent by 2050. Anticipating that unprecedented growth, city planners are looking to "future proof" cities to provide for a more sustainable future.
“Future proofing” refers to the way cities respond to the risks associated with climate change, resource scarcities and damage to ecosystems as an urban space develops. In a report released called "Future Proofing Cities", UK-based Atkins Global, an engineering and design consultancy, analyzed risk profiles for 129 cities in 20 countries around the world. The report found there is a closing window in which to act before cities are locked into unsustainable practices – often exacerbated by a “grow first, tackle environmental risks later” mentality.
The three main risk factors facing cities are climate risks, carbon emissions and energy use issues, and resource scarcity/ecosystem risks. According to the report, these three categories are not independent of one another, and often problems in one category are compounded by factors from another.
The report identified four types of at-risk cities and offered solutions for each. They are:
- Energy intensive cities with significant carbon footprints: Attention must be taken to develop sustainable transportation policy as well as promoting action to reduce carbon output, such as switching to alternative fuel fleets. An example of such a city would be Bakersfield, Calif., which the American Lung Association (ALA) ranked worst in the nation for air quality, due to high levels or particle pollution.
- Cities with major climate hazards: Hard infrastructure must be prioritized, specifically improvements to reduce flooding risks. Strategic land management policies must be prioritized, as well as public health measures and disaster preparedness plans. An example would be New Orleans, which suffered catastrophic losses when levees broke during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
- Cities with risks to regional support systems such as water, food systems and risks to natural habitats: These cities can draw on the widest range of solutions, as most measures to tackle climate problems will also positively impact ecosystem and resource risks. Urban agriculture and wastewater recycling programs can be beneficial. An example would be Houston, which, according to Yahoo finance, has a dramatically shrinking aquifer, forcing cities to use nearby lakes for municipal water. The city’s population growth puts it in immediate risk for serious water shortages.
- Cities facing multiple risks: Harmonizing policy response is the most important consideration in these cities. Striking a balance between short and long-term solutions and utilizing public-private partnerships to promote shifts in behaviors are encouraged. An example would be Los Angeles, which ranks in the ALA’s cities with worst air qualities and is at immediate risk for running out of fresh water according to the Los Angeles Times.
City policymakers are often able to respond to these concerns more nimbly than national counterparts, according to the report. Local governments can act with precision, creating solutions that work best in their location. Often these solutions not only benefit the environment, but have positive social and economic outcomes.
Atkins presented their report Sept. 9 in San Diego as part of a panel discussion focusing on the city’s future sustainability. Mark Kersey, San Diego councilman said, “Regardless of their size or location, cities need to act now to future-proof their urban development and infrastructure strategies before getting locked into unsustainable development pathways,” in a statement.
For more information, or to download the report, visit futureproofingcities.com