How much trouble are we in? What we can do about it? How long have we got? With quality of life at stake and no easy answers, the time is now for tackling the difficult questions being asked of future cities worldwide, writes Jim McClelland
According to data from the United Nations, in 2008 the proportion of the world's population living in urban areas passed the 50% mark, heading for 70% by 2050.
By 2030, the total for city dwellers globally is forecast to hit around five billion. City inhabitants already consume 75 per cent of the planet's natural resources and contribute to urban activities responsible for 80 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
All this happens on a mere 2 per cent of global land mass. The numbers are daunting.
The future is not for the faint-hearted, nor is it for the disjointed or disconnected. Shaping cities is a team game, as Jon Lovell, director and head of sustainability at Deloitte Real Estate, explains: "Without a serious shift in urban thinking, the consequences of escalating climate change, pollution and resource depletion pose an ever-more serious threat to the resilience of cities right around the world.
"This requires much more than, say, integrating solar panels into buildings, and needs all elements of the urban jigsaw - buildings, infrastructure, communities and institutions - to be much more integrated and better adapted to future challenges," he says.
In response, there is a spirit of co-operation and collaboration in evidence, with peace breaking out between public and private sectors. Austerity has heralded in a new pragmatism.
"Among more enlightened authorities and developers, there is now greater realisation that 'they need each other' - municipalities need the private capital and profit motive to drive projects forward to acceptable deadlines, while investors realise that suitably consented schemes will only come through full consultation with public agencies," says Hugh Roberts, urban and regional planning practice leader at SKM Colin Buchanan.
As public-private partnerships become increasingly common, so too do issues of hybrid governance. There are investment implications and reputational risk-benefit impacts for established urban centres to consider when entering into commercial contractual arrangements, in a bid for global competitiveness.
The dangers of "branding or blanding" of cities, either through overt corporate badging of service solutions or (inter)national homogeneity of offerings, can threaten or diminish cultural heritage and conservation of marketable local and community character.
Ultimately, though, the guiding principle for uses of the public purse remains constant and simple: improving the quality of life and wellbeing of citizens. Understanding how best that can be achieved, against the clock, calls for smart thinking, as much as smart technology.
There are well over 1,000 cities in the world with populations in excess of 500,000. The opportunities are limitless for experience to be shared and knowledge transferred between countries and even continents.
One of the key lessons coming out of new-build urban development in Asia, and especially China, is that energy is not the only game in town. H2O is rapidly becoming the new CO2 of future-city metrics. Wilder Associates director and BRE (Building Research Establishment) associate, Peter Wilder, explains: "Water quality is now a key indicator for all cities, not just eco-cities, mainly because the availability of drinking water is a limiting factor in a city's ability to grow."
As well as too little water, he adds, cities increasingly have to deal with incidences and impacts of too much. Water-sensitive urban design offers a custom-fit climate-risk strategy, readily transferable from new to old metropolitan settings.
"The approach to adapting the environment within our new cities to accommodate extreme events will need to filter down to our existing cities through integration of rain gardens, disconnection of homes from storm-water sewers and conversion of open spaces into storm-water wetlands to promote the recharging of abstraction aquifers and reduce the burden on already-overloaded piped networks," says Mr Wilder.
Whether investment is in blue (water-related) infrastructure or green, smart buildings and grids, or machine-to-machine technology through the so-called Internet of Things, connectivity is key. The figure involved could come in as many forms as the measures of improvement.
It could be the £24 million awarded to Glasgow in the Future Cities Demonstrator competition, managed and funded by the UK government innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board. Or it might be 6,700, which is the total number of traffic lights in Quito, Ecuador, covered by the real-time adaptive control system from Schneider Electric.
The true number crunch for cities though is time. What timeframe should be used when talking about the sustainability of smart development fit for the future? The longer, the better, would be the advice from Andrew Comer, managing director, environment and infrastructure, at international consulting engineers Buro Happold.
"The time frame to judge any development in terms of its true sustainability has to be over a long period," he says. "Investment in buildings should be viewed over 40 to 50 years. Similarly, many major infrastructure programmes being undertaken today will be impacting on the UK economy and its carbon footprint for the next 50 to 80 years. But how much attention is given to making the right choices or decisions on this basis?"
Back in 1963, the influential urban planning report and book Traffic in Towns was published by Professor Sir Colin Buchanan. Now, 50 years on, with Transport in Cities, SKM Colin Buchanan aims to revisit the issues, and produce a fresh vision and blueprint for the next 50 years.
To put that challenge into perspective, consider stories of the day from 1963: Martin Luther King announced having a dream; putting a man on the Moon still seemed like one; the first mobile phone was a decade away; and £1 would buy 60 loaves of bread. Things change.
Predicting the future calls for the art of the improbable, if not impossible. Cities are in the business of planning, designing, engineering and building the future, not to mention facilitating, transporting, generating, heating, cooling, draining, feeding, watering, greening and connecting.
All this so that 50 per cent and more of the world's population can get on with living sustainably - healthy and happy.
For cities, the future is going to be big and it is going to be clever. Scale matters. Smart wins. The future is now.
This article was originally featured in Raconteur's special report on 'Future Cities' which published in The Times newspaper on March 26, 2013.
To read related articles, view the full special report here