Welcome to the Urban Planet

courtesy flickr/victoriapeckham

In the last couple of years, our planet’s human inhabitants have crossed two major thresholds, one of which indicates major problems ahead, and the other of which offers a glimmer of hope.  We’ll get back to the hopeful bit in a minute, but let’s begin with the problem, which you’ve probably seen in the news lately: according to the UN’s estimate, the world population just crossed the 7,000,000,000 mark.  Various models suggest it’ll probably plateau somewhere between 10 and 15 billion about a century from now – at the high end, that means more than two people walking around for every one that’s alive now.

Can you imagine the implications?  Most of them are worrisome.  Assuming we continue to do business as usual, nearly every resource on the planet will be strained.  We would have to double our agricultural production to meet demand, and even if this turns out to be possible, we could easily end up doubling our land and water use as well, and doubling the runoff of fertilizers and pesticides.  Speaking of runoff, all those people will need access to clean water, which even today is much rarer than it ought to be.  They’ll also need to heat their homes, cook their food and get from place to place, so demand for fossil fuels will skyrocket too.  And that’s to say nothing of the carbon footprint that’ll be left by an extra 3-8 billion humans.

Of course, we don’t necessarily need to do business as usual – we can be a lot smarter than that.  Sustainable power, organic and genetically engineered crops, smart water use, urban planning, and even this cheap solar lamp are all ideas that, if taken to scale, could minimize the impact of all that extra population.  I hope to discuss these solutions and more right here in this space.  But for today, I want to look at the issue through a slightly different lens, and that’s where the other big milestone comes in.

S Margeson

As of 2008, more than half the people in the world live in a city.  Again, this is the first time in history, and again, that number is only going up for the foreseeable future.

What does this have to do with the population problem?  Far be it from me to suggest that urbanization, by itself, is an automatic solution – but the fact is, the increasing city-ness of the world’s residents provides a host of unique opportunities for more sustainable, efficient and equitable living.

Take land use, for example.  I’m deeply worried that as population expands, we’ll simply take over more space, thereby despoiling remaining areas of natural beauty, threatening ecosystems and driving more species to extinction.  But cities support much higher densities – they allow for upward, rather than outward, expansion.  Similarly, water and power can be allocated more efficiently when people are living close together, and shared transportation networks like subways become more cost-effective.  There are also a host of emerging technological innovations that will transform the city for the better, from responsive architecture to distributed communication networks to integrated renewable energy sources (more topics for future posts!).

Urbanization does bring a host of challenges.  Witness the vast suffering within Mumbai’s Dharavi shantytown, or Rio’s unofficial favelas.  This is a particular concern when you notice that the population and urbanization trends are geographically aligned: Africa and Asia will see both the largest population boom and the fastest rate of urbanization, suggesting that cities there are likely to rapidly outgrow their capacity.

What do you think?  Can urbanization act as a counterweight to population growth?  Can we combat the associated problems in a comprehensive way, or are we just trading a frying pan for a fire?  And is it possible to slow or reverse either trend, even if we wanted to?

Personally, I remain hopeful that cities, on balance, will make life better for those 8 billion or so new humans, and perhaps more importantly will help ensure that our tiny planet can continue to support all of us, however many we may be.


6 thoughts on “Welcome to the Urban Planet

  1. The increased population densities in urban areas do seem to hold part of the potential for housing, feeding, and offering services to the many people expected to share this planet. Protecting natural areas and the other species who also inhabit the planet is crucial. Lots to be concerned about though such as adequate infrastructure, disease and epidemics, and transportation into and out of the urban hub.

    • You’re definitely right about the challenges! I think highly developed nations will be fairly well positioned to address the impending infrastructure and health needs, if sufficient political will exists. Countries with fewer resources will have a harder time. On the other hand, since so many of their urban areas will be brand-new, they’ll have a chance to start from scratch and incorporate best practices from the very beginning.

  2. This is why I write about urban environmental issues. The world population will often be living in large, income-diverse cities.

    This is one reason that preventing flooding of coastal cities is so important.

    • Wow, that’s a good point – urbanization won’t solve many problems if a lot of our urban areas end up below sea level, or beset by storms and floods.

  3. According to Ray Kurzweil in about 2045 machine intelligence will surpass that of humans, a concept known as the Singularity. Individuals will gradually merge with machines by, for example incorporating computer chips into their brains enabling direct communication with computers. More and more people will choose stronger artificial bodies rather than their flesh and blood ones which will not require fuel in the form of food. Others, according to Transhumanists such as Kurzweil will choose to live in virtual worlds/on the web. If (a very big if) Kurzweil’s predicions come to pass than many of the humans of the future will not place a significant burden on the planet. Many people question Kurzweil’s predictions and/or his timetable but I thought I would throw it into the mix. Even if Kurzweil’s predictions are likely to come to pass the question as to their desirability remains.

    • Interesting! I’m familiar with the singularity concept, but I’ve always thought about it in terms of new possibilities for consciousness, etc. It never occurred to me that it might be more sustainable too. It makes sense that we could increase our energy efficiency many-fold, if we are so inclined.

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