Cities hold key to planetary health

Cities hold the key to sustainable development, and can prove more effective than national governments when it comes to making environmental improvements, according to the new report, Reinventing Cities for People and the Planet, from the Worldwatch Institute in Washington D.C.


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The world’s cities take up just 2 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet account for roughly 78 percent of the carbon emissions from human activities, 76 percent of industrial wood use, and 60 percent of the water tapped for use by people, says the report.

“These figures suggest that the struggle to achieve an environmentally sustainable economy will be won or lost in the world’s urban areas,” says Molly O’Meara, author of Reinventing Cities for People and the Planet. “Urban systems are undermining the planet’s health and failing to provide decent living conditions for millions of people.”

London, for example, now requires roughly 58 times its land area just to supply its residents with food and timber. Meeting the needs of everyone in the world in the same way that the needs of Londoners are met would require at least three more Earths.

Today, at least 600 million city dwellers in the developing world do not have adequate shelter and 1.1 billion choke on unhealthy air. Polluted air in 36 Indian cities killed some 52,000 people in 1995, a 28 percent increase from the early 1990s. China reported at least 3 million deaths from toxic urban air between 1994 and 1996.

Rapid urbanisation in the twentieth century has magnified the environmental impact of cities. In 1900, only 160 million people, one tenth of the world’s population, were urbanites. By 2006, in contrast, half the world (3.2 billion people) will live in urban areas – a 20-fold increase in numbers. Because of inadequate systems and poor planning, cities are disproportionately driving global warming, deforestation, and increasing water scarcity. Changes in six areas – water, waste, food, energy, transportation, and land use – are needed to make cities better for people and the planet, says O’Meara.

Positive examples

One of the guiding principles will be to reform urban systems so that they mimic the metabolism of nature. “Rather than devouring water, food, energy, and processed goods, and then belching out the remains as pollutants, the city could align its consumption with realistic needs, produce more of its own food and energy, and put much more of its waste to use,” says O’Meara. The study cites examples where cities are proving to be more nimble than nations at using planning and fiscal reform to put these ideas into action:

  • Curitiba, Brazil has coordinated transportation and land use to support efficient public buses. Although the city has one car for every three people, two thirds of all trips in the city are made by bus. Curitiba also has devised a unique way to promote sanitation while boosting nutrition. Since 1991, the city has taken the money it would otherwise pay waste collectors to fetch garbage from slums, and has spent it on food from local farms. For every bag of waste brought to a waste collection site, a low-income family gets a bag of locally grown vegetables and fruits.
  • Copenhagen, Denmark has taken a lead in turning waste into resource. “Grey water” from kitchens and compost from household waste nourish food-producing gardens, while hot water left over from power generation heats nearly 70 percent of the city’s buildings. Also a leader in low-energy transport, Copenhagen maintains a fleet of bikes for public use that is financed through advertising on the wheel surfaces and bicycle frames.
  • Chattanooga, Tennessee, a leader in recycling and electric buses, has transformed itself from the most polluted city in the United States to one of the most livable in less than three decades. A proposed zero-waste park, which would include factories, retail stores, and residences, would expand the city’s metamorphosis. Underground tunnels would link some 30 buildings, 10 of which exist already, to share heating, cooling, wastes, and industrial water supplies.

A key problem, argues O’Meara, is that national governments curtail the fiscal autonomy of cities. With greater control over their own revenue sources, cities could place higher fees on water, trash collection, and road use; and levy taxes on fossil fuels in order to bring needed funds to city bank accounts and provide incentives for green technologies and jobs.

Also, various networks are speeding co-operation between officials in different urban settings. City-to-city exchanges are not as politically charged as negotiations among nations, so local authorities are often able to move faster than their national governments can to combat global environmental problems. In the 1980s, cities in the United States and Canada passed ordinances banning ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), well before the 1996 deadline for eliminating CFCs set by an international treaty.

Some of the same municipalities have seized the lead in tackling climate change in the 1990s. For example, organised by the Toronto-based International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, more than 300 cities have pledged to lower their greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below a baseline target by 2005-2010 – a goal that far exceeds the 5 percent cut by industrial nations agreed to in Kyoto, Japan in 1997.

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