By Adam Newton
The scale and pace of urban development is startling. Allowing for a world population of nine billion people by 2050, every single new person on the planet will be accounted for in a city somewhere - that's eight new Londons a year for the next 40 years.
As the global population grows and hundreds of millions of people move out of poverty in the emerging economies, the world's vital resources: water, food and energy will be under stress. And of course global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, alongside demand for energy.
Cities are the places where stresses linked to resource consumption aggregate. By 2050, 80% of energy usage will be in cities and 80% of emissions according to most estimates, not to mention shortages of clean drinking water, air quality impacts and congestion. Shell's latest Scenarios highlight the importance of future urban planning as a solution for the stresses on the world's resources and a means of making cities part of the solution and not a bigger part of the problem.
Taking China as an example, by 2030 an additional 300 people million are expected to join the ranks of the Chinese urbanites - a growth equal to the entire population of the United States. Our own analysis of Chinese urbanisation suggests that by increasing the density of today's sprawling industrial zones routinely to the levels of cities like London or Paris, China's entire projected urban population growth to 2030 can be accommodated without expanding the existing urban land footprint. That would save almost 75,000 square kilometres of arable land - almost the size of Scotland - and create the conditions to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Worldwide with compact city design, and good provision of energy efficient vehicles and public transport, a saving of some 2,000 vehicle-km per person per year from car use could be achieved. If cities with abundant resources grow organically, they tend to sprawl, leading to deep energy inefficiency becoming locked in which is difficult to reverse. Poorer and more crowded cities run the same risk.
City government has to offer incentives and sanctions for smart growth and business must play a role in creating smarter, integrated energy, housing, information, mobility, water and waste solutions. To prosper, all groups must operate in a co-ordinated way, yet this dance is very hard to master. If leaders assume that problems are too hard to solve and solutions too unpopular to execute, stresses in cities will be ignored until liveability is compromised.
Over the coming decades, each city will face its own particular stresses, but there are a number of universal issues that all cities will face. With wealth comes greater public expectations in terms of city liveability. An increased appetite for more goods and services increases our reliance on energy. The prosperity paradox in our New Lens Scenarios considers just this. Urban liveability is partially served through increasing environmental standards and their requirements for more technically advanced solutions - but they come at a cost premium.
If we can succeed in getting government, business and society all working together to create smart solutions to these stresses, then cities could just be the last hope for the nine billion people on the planet.
Adam Newton is Projects Manager in the Shell Strategy and Scenarios Team.
Hear him speak at the Intelligence Squared "Smarter Cities" event on 4 March in London, part of the 'Switched On' series of live talks and debates with Shell.