Opinion: What engineers do in cities will set the course for the next century

A view of Shanghai, China. Photo by: Dhi / CC BY

The battle for a sustainable future will be won or lost in the world’s cities. Specifically, how we design, locate, build and finance urban infrastructure will be the central determinant of the quality of life and health of the planet in the century to come.

This fact was missed in the Millennium Development Goals, when the strong emphasis on poverty meant a focus on rural areas, and the emphasis on basic needs led to a focus on health, education and food security, away from infrastructure. As a result, many policymakers and aid organizations dropped the ball rather badly in recognizing the emerging urban juggernaut. This was costly, and we’re now playing catch-up.

The pace of urbanization in the past quarter century has probably been the most dramatic demographic and social shift in human history. In 1990, the urban population stood at 2 billion. Since then it has doubled to around 4 billion, as the world’s cities have accumulated nearly 100 million extra people each year. In 1900 there were 12 cities in the world with populations over 1 million. Today, there are more than 900 such cities, and 35 “mega-cities” with more than 10 million inhabitants. And the pace of urbanization is not slowing. Sub-Saharan Africa, which has been highly rural until recently, is likely to show a dramatic acceleration.

Urbanization has both responded to and generated economic progress. It has helped reduce poverty at a faster rate than ever before, and provided economic opportunities to enable nearly 70 million people each year to enter the global middle class.

Urbanization is therefore a largely positive transition. So, what’s the problem?

“Cities where public expenditure is allocated to ensure access to urban services for all segments of the population — particularly the poor and lower middle classes — can lead to a better economy, better environment and better society.”

—    Dr. Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute

Most obviously, governments simply can’t keep up with the growth of demand for services. We are underinvesting by around $1 trillion a year in new urban infrastructure. As a result, the quality of transport, power, water, sanitation and pollution control is weak, leading to unhealthy and inefficient cities. Something more profound is also happening. For most of the past century, cities have been designed for automobiles rather than people. When city populations were modest this worked rather well, and suburban life became the aspiration of the middle class. But as cities grow, negative tipping points can be crossed, as congestion rises exponentially, imposing a serious drag on a city’s economy. In the U.S., the cost of such “sprawl” is estimated to have topped $1 trillion per year. In many cities, congestion drags down city income by 10 percent, and associated pollution can cost another 5-10 percent. The cost in terms of greenhouse gas emissions is vast.

The good news is that there is a better way. We now know that compact, connected and coordinated cities, in which high-density, mixed-use development is linked to public transport corridors, can lead to a better economy, environment and society. The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has shown that smartly designed cities can emit 80 percent less carbon, while being more competitive and enjoying higher income; Barcelona, for example, has a larger population than Atlanta, yet emits only one-tenth of the greenhouse gases from transport. Still, designing cities around people rather than automobiles could save $3 trillion in infrastructure costs in the coming 15 years.

A report released last October shows that policies aimed at making a city more equal will also make it more productive and more environmentally sustainable. Cities where public expenditure is allocated to ensure access to urban services for all segments of the population — particularly the poor and lower middle classes — can lead to a better economy, better environment and better society.

It is these issues that the United Nations’ 11th Sustainable Development Goal addresses. Already a movement to forge a different urban future is gaining momentum. In India, Prime Minister Modi has committed to creating 100 “smart cities;” Chinese authorities have committed to investing in 100 low carbon cities, seeing carbon emissions as a proxy for economic inefficiency; and more than 425 cities have signed on to the Compact of Mayors — a commitment by city leaders globally to the proposition that low carbon cities will promote better services and a better economy.

The stakes are very high. Infrastructure decisions made in the next two decades will lock in the trajectory for billions of people for the coming century. It’s not too late to get it right — two-thirds of the infrastructure that will exist in 2050 in developing countries is not yet built — but the window of opportunity is closing fast. Engineers must join the cause!

Over six weeks, Devex and our partners will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Andrew Steer

    Andrew Steer is the president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, a global research organization that works in more than 50 countries. Steer serves on the executive board of the U.N. secretary general's Sustainable Energy For All initiative. He co-chairs the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Natural Capital and is a member of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development.