Sustainable cities: the future of the human habitat

Sustainable city
Illustration: Clare Nicholas
Guest editor Hank Dittmar presents a series of articles on the green cities of tomorrow, and explains why they hold hope for us all

The environmental tradition has historically been about embracing and preserving the wild places, and environmentalists have often viewed cities as dirty, polluting, unfortunate habitats that pose a great threat to nature.

This tendency to position nature and humanity in opposition derives from both the popular rejection of the Victorian city, its polluting factories and foul sewers, and from the roots of environmentalism in saving threatened species and preserving habitat and scenic beauty.

Environmentalists responded by regulating industrial and urban discharge into water and air, through planning laws to preserve countryside and reclaim industrial land, and through preserving and conserving farmland and wild places as green lungs for the planet.

The result has been, at least in the global north, cleaner water, purer air and dedicated parks and nature reserves. At the same time, however, huge global population growth, and the move from subsistence and market farming to industrial agriculture have together brought about an urban explosion, and cities have become a dominant feature in both the human and natural environment.

A few facts will help to make the needed connections. In 2007, the Earth oficially became an urban planet, with more than half the world’s population living in cities for the first time. Globally, the 21st century will be the urban century.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, of the global population increase of 2.2 billion by 2030, 2.1 billion will live in urban areas, and by 2030, more than 60 per cent of the world’s population will be urban dwellers. Despite our self-image as a nation of villagers, the UK population is overwhelmingly urban, with 90 per cent of us living in urban places, according to the United Nations.

Two issues arise here. First, if all these urban dwellers adopt the suburban living patterns and lifestyles of the United States and Western Europe, the problems of climate change, resource depletion, waste and pollution will be greatly exacerbated. Second, many if not most of the urban dwellers in the global south live in grossly overcrowded slums, rife with cholera and other diseases, and where infant mortality, malnutrition and lack of secure land tenure are endemic problems. These slums may be environmentally sustainable, inasmuch as their contribution to climate change is negligible, but only because their residents have next to nothing.

Global urbanisation is thus both a social and environmental issue, and the challenge of raising global living standards while reducing carbon emissions is a knotty and worldwide problem– for all of the traditional reasons about pollution and overcrowding, plus challenges of public health, nutrition and engagement in civil society.

People all over the world are moving to cities for a reason: by and large they are seen as offering the opportunity for a better life, because they provide the chance for employment, training, access to healthcare, to education and to the online world. In other words, cities are efficient places for humans, and increasingly are key to a successful human ecology. For when we look at urban places, we find not only solutions to the personal transport part of the climate problem – density, connected streets, accessible public transport, more efficient buildings and mixed use – but also solutions for the broader social challenge of truly sustainable development.

The June issue of the Ecologist proposes that cities are, in fact, part of nature, and that in the 21st century, the planet’s survival may depend upon making them the preferred habitat for humans, and doing so in a way that results in more efficient use of resources, better land conservation and habitat protection, but also improved living conditions for the human species.

The articles in the Ecologist special issue on Sustainable Cities look at some basic questions, such as how we feed our cities and how we travel within them. They tackle designing cities with climate change and community in mind. They address the way that ‘greener’ building codes sometimes result in less green buildings, and ask what green buildings should be made from and look like.

Thinking of cities as habitat for humans (and songbirds, insects and small mammals) means organising cities in ways that offer different choices in our day-to-day lives: greener ways of living; of moving around – or not having to move around so much; of delivering food and services. Responding to the urgent crises of climate change is often seen as a burden, and as a threat. People fear that life in the future will be more limited, and that being green means making sacrifices. We don’t believe that’s so: the shift to green cities could well add to our quality of life here in Britain; in fact we might eat better, be healthier and have just as many choices as before. They are just different choices.

Hank Dittmar is the chief executive of the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment

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