The growth of urban developments into megacities and metropolitan regions is leading to fundamental changes in sustenance, transport and logistics. An interview with Konrad Otto-Zimmermann, General Secretary of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.
Megacities all over the world are both engines of growth and resource-gluttons at the same time. Can a sustainable model be derived from such a conflict of interests?
Otto-Zimmermann: Cities are actually the centres in which most people will live in the future; they are also the places where culture will be created and emerge and where research and development will be pursued. They are the world's key economic centers. At the same time, the cities themselves and their people with their urban lifestyles lay claim to considerable resources. To ensure cities are designed in a sustainable way and are fit for the future they need to undergo radical transformation. They have to become more environmentally friendly, more efficient in their use of resources, more economically efficient, reduce their CO²footprints and become far more resistant to crises, disasters and the effects of climate change. The work required to ensure that these cities, which will be home to two thirds of the world's population in 40 years' time, are liveable and offer a safe environment, is quite considerable.
The supply of water, energy, transport ... what are the biggest challenges, or is everything in fact a challenge?
There isn't just one key priority. It is to reduce demand in all areas and to improve efficiency as far as possible at the same time. In many megacities, water shortages are likely to occur if they continue to grow, and climate change will also create uncertainties with water supplies. There are certain to be energy related problems, as many cities are suffering supply shortages in this context even now. We also have to change the supply of energy to environmentally friendly technologies which presents another problem. Nutrition and the need to supply cities with affordable food over the coming decades are tasks to which there appears to be no solution when current resources are taken into account. As the world population grows, we will also begin to experience shortages of good agricultural land; a lot of farmland is falling prey to erosion, salification and desertification each year.
And since cities rely so heavily on the inward delivery of resources for their survival, logistics will play an even more important role in the future. Traffic and transport are already a big issue today, and will remain a huge challenge to cities in the future. In many large urban conurbations, permanent traffic jams that go on for hours are already a part of everyday life. With all of the resources, technologies and control instruments that we now have at our disposal, no solution is in sight. These problems will only be solved through huge increases in efficiency, the doubled and repeated use of resources, reuse, enhancing the lifespans of our infrastructure and a downsizing of dimensions. Today, for instance, a person is transported in a car that is roughly twenty times his or her weight, while it is perfectly possible to travel over short distances with a method of transport that weighs only one fifth of the average weight of an individual–the bicycle.