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01/11/2018

Cities must become more sustainable if they are to continue to support global economic growth

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This year's World Cities Day took the theme of 'Building Sustainable and Resilient Cities'. If we're to meet this challenge, we need to focus on inefficiencies in the way cities are designed, built and operated, says George Adams

Yesterday (31 October) marked the United Nation’s annual World Cities Day, an event to focus the mind on the impact cities have on our environment and the positive role they can play.

As highlighted by the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, every week 1.4 million people move to cities. By 2050 the World Bank expects that 600 cities will account for 60 per cent of global domestic product and will house 68 per cent of the global population – projected to be 10 billion by 2060. With cities outstripping global gross domestic product by more than 50 per cent, the importance to national governments of being able to foster successful cities is invaluable for their standing in the global economy and producing revenues that can help fund public services.

However, with this concentration of growth also comes a number of challenges. Currently, cities produce almost three-quarters of our waste but only house half of the world’s population. In short, they are incredibly inefficient. This is a major concern and there is a pressing need to make them more sustainable if they are to be resilient to future climate changes and not contribute significantly to the destruction of the planet. 

"One of the first steps cities can take is to begin implementing a whole life approach that considers the economics of being free from fossil fuels"

One of the first steps cities can take is to begin implementing a whole life approach that considers the economics of being free from fossil fuels in the way cities are designed, procured, built and operated. By 2050, 70 per cent of our current building stock will still be in use, so it is critical we consider how this resource can be recycled and maintained now so that it is fit for purpose then.

Secondly, whilst electric vehicle charging initiatives, such as the UK Government’s Road to Zero plan, should be welcomed, electric charging cannot be considered a one-way street. Two-way electric charging technologies treat the grid as an energy transport network, allowing for the most efficient use of energy. As such, people can charge their vehicles but also return energy to the grid to power their homes. Moreover, we must also embrace the potential for other fundamental changes such as hydrogen powered transport and bio-fuels.

For cities on their quest to become the smart places to be, it is imperative that they also achieve zero impact on the environment, and quickly, to attract or retain the innovative businesses and talented people that work in them. In the global marketplace, accomplished individuals are looking for more than great local schools or access to healthcare, they want good air quality, green spaces, smart transport networks and dynamic public services, too. The simple fact is that cities that provide these key features will attract these individuals and as a result they will be attractive to the businesses crucial for driving sustainable growth.

George Adams is director of energy and engineering at electrical and mechanical engineering company SPIE UK. He is also chair of the CIBSE (Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers) Resilient Cities Group.

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