© Hans-Georg Esch

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.

© Hans Georg Esch

Awareness raising or national formalities?

Doesn't this clash with the age-old problem of people wanting to maintain the lifestyles to which they are accustomed? Added to this are those living in high growth regions such as Latin America, India and China, who look to the west and want to emulate the Western lifestyle. Is it possible to change the way people think in this respect?

The question is, the way in which these transformations, which have to happen, can be approached without crises bringing about forced changes. One approach involves opinion forming and changing preferences, values and lifestyles. Another could come in the shape of state regulations. The example of climate protection shows us, however, that the international community is not prepared to protect the continuation of human civilisation through global agreements. A third way would see the economy offering the solutions of the future, yet this is countered by the competition situation which provides no incentive to consume less or stop unfavourable production processes. It may also be the case, however, that declines in standards of living, nutrition and mobility will ultimately occur to which people will simply have to become accustomed. There are many conceivable scenarios and many different scenarios will occur in the world's different cities.

Do you have any examples of forward-looking, sustainable cities, in terms of what they are developing and the projects they are realising?

One topic in this context is motorised transport, not only because we will eventually run out of fuel, but also because of emissions and the space factor. In an era in which resources are scarce, a city will be far better placed if it already has a very good public transport network. Public transport is the backbone of commuter traffic. Some cities are already well developed in this respect but others are far from being so. The same applies to goods traffic and city logistics. Those who invest in solutions today, will be far better placed in terms of the competitive relationships between cities in the future.

Missing regulators in city logistics

It is ultimately the supply situation in cities that leads to chaos on the roads. Would it not be a better idea to try and prevent traffic from entering cities from the outset with new concepts? For both personal mobility and for logistics supply?

While in the industrial sector, delivery and transport have largely already been optimised due to costs, with parcelled goods and the distribution of post in cities, anachronistic circumstances are the norm. This is caused by business competition and the free market, but also because city logistics are not planned by anyone. There is simply the lack of a "transport and planning governance" and a "metropolitan governance" which looks at, plans and decides things on an integrated basis.

When we see how online business is currently exploding into life, what in your view could be sensible steps? We need to gain an awareness of there being alternative solutions for cities in the future than simply providing shopping streets.

First of all, it will be necessary to optimise the interfaces between collection and bringing. Do I collect everything from different shops in which food, equipment, materials etc., are stored, or are products brought to me from central stores? And are they delivered to each house door or only to a specific apartment building or block? Delivering everything in vehicles via road is also a poor idea. In modern airports, most luggage is transported underground and via conveyors, so why should things be any different in cities? Why can't a modern city also have an underground conveyor belt distribution system for goods which is operated by the different suppliers and recipients as a shared system? Similar to a street which is used at the same time by all types of people, services and companies.

Parcelled goods would then be deposited at specific reception points, to be addressed and coded before being automatically forwarded to specific collection points after only a brief delay. These reception and collection points could be located in every block of buildings and in all multi-storey buildings that the underground logistics distribution system serves, where people can collect their consignments, taking them to their shop, office or apartment via the lift. The problem is whether there is enough space to create a tunnel based logistics system of this kind in cities. Yet if a drain is being renewed anyway why not construct a multifunctional tunnel next to it which makes it possible to build distribution systems of this kind? We also need to remember that urban capacity is set to double in the future, and that entirely new cities and urban districts are going to be built in Asia for three to three and a half billion people. Why should these continue to follow the archaic model of tarmac roads used by HGVs? Why not realise a new approach right from the start?

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