Cities in Future Earth: a summary of key considerations

The Cities in Future Earth conference was organised by the National Committee for Earth System Science and supported by the Department of the Environment.

Global urban population is exploding in the 21st century

In the first decade of this century, the proportion of the human population living in cities passed the 50% mark for the first time. The proportion of people living in cities is projected to rise sharply through the rest of this century. The world's population could reach almost 10 billion by 2050 and more than half of these people will live in cities. To accommodate the extra 3 billion people, we will need to build the equivalent of one new city that can support one million people every 5 days between now and 2050. This presents many challenges, but also opens up many opportunities to plan, design and build better new urban infrastructure.

The system is failing us: transformational policies are required

The presenters at Cities in Future Earth provided a wide range of perspectives highlighting system failure—including political, economic, social and environmental (local to global). The critical issues all dealt with aspects of the key question: what changes are needed to move to sustainable urban settlements?

There are a number of lenses through which city futures can be examined, including geography, governance, culture and society, services, energy use, metabolic flows and global corporations, some of which are now larger than small nation economies. An important feature of these components of cities is that they are highly interconnected, forming complex urban systems and urban-rural links.

The large quantum of change required to meet sustainability targets was well illustrated by the City of Melbourne. It was clear that a comprehensive strategy could be implemented on climate change mitigation but transformational change could not be made unless there was a rapid and large-scale switch to renewable energy sources. Even then, carbon offsets would be required for a time. This example also highlighted the importance of the broader policy context, such as national renewable energy policy settings.

Designing and planning our cities

The future design of our cities raised critical issues in relation to urban growth and sustainability. Moving towards zero carbon and resilient cities will require comprehensive and integrated strategies for urban density, habitat, biodiversity, food, energy and, importantly, transport. An urban carbon budget was highlighted as a strategic tool for implementing change and integrating across many sectors. Reducing urban consumption is key to achieving more sustainable cities.

There is considerable recognition of the importance and influence of human behaviour. An interesting and important concept raised in that regard is nature deficit disorder, where lack of contact with nature can create stress and behavioural disorders in urban dwellers, and a lack of understanding of the implications of urban consumption for rural natural resources. There is also an understanding that there are limits to adaptation. City plans need to consider climate change mitigation together with adaptation within the broader scope of sustainability.

Climate-sensitive urban design was highlighted with a specific case study on ‘urban heat islands’ and possible policy responses, including urban forestry at the micro-scale, local scale and meso-scale. Distributed, ‘off- grid’ proposals were canvassed, including both energy and water being delivered via localised distribution networks. Although such systems seem attractive in many ways, they do raise significant issues around governance, interdependence and custodianship which also need to be addressed.

Cities in Future Earth raised complex challenges, including finding ways to reconcile the decarbonisation of cities and suburbs with the maintenance of liveability. In other words, how can a zero-carbon city still be liveable and acceptable to the community? Can we create urban settlements that operate with a much lower input of resources and still be liveable? The concept of green precincts was raised as a mechanism for dealing with this challenge by developing more integrated solutions on the ground.

Social considerations, equity issues and the risk of more ‘divided cities’ were emphasised. There was an understanding that we are already witnessing increasingly divided cities and the impacts of climate change may exacerbate this. An example is the impact of prolonged heatwaves on the most ‘vulnerable communities’, which are often the most socially disadvantaged.

Making it happen

Perhaps the most important international challenge or opportunity is how developing countries can ‘leapfrog’ the pathway that car-based cities in wealthy countries must now take to sustainability. Engagement of the wider community was raised frequently; one way is by creating an effective engagement platform for cities through networks of city mayors to share knowledge and experience (e.g. C40 and ICLEI), thus fast-tracking the leapfrogging approach through peer-to-peer learning.

Selected case studies (City of Melbourne, Masdar) stressed the need for clear targets and pathways to achieve sustainability outcomes. Specific examples were renewable energy targets, urban environmental improvement agreements and energy efficiency rating schemes. Local action needs to be supported by higher levels of government (e.g. the national regulatory environment for renewable energy).

Who is responsible for what? This important question highlighted the need for a clearer understanding of urban governance, the role of different levels of government in cities and the roles that the corporate sector can play (see for example Westpac’s Climate Change and Environment Position Statement and 2017 Action Plan ).

Political leadership was seen as fundamental to transformation, especially in terms of controlling the power of ‘vested interests’ and tackling the inertia of the business-as-usual approach. Local action is achieving significant incremental change but needs support from higher levels and other actions to achieve major transformation. This may require exploring new ways of engaging the community (e.g. charettes, scenarios).

Future Earth and future cities

In his opening address to the conference, Professor Andrew Holmes, President of the Australian Academy of Science, emphasised the importance of trans-disciplinary research and transformation. He announced a commitment by the Academy to facilitate Academy discussions and mobilise national agencies around ‘Future Earth’. There can be synergies in the academies working together on the important questions of Cities in Future Earth.

Future Earth is a new global research platform designed to provide the knowledge needed to support transformations towards sustainability. Future Earth seeks to build and connect knowledge to increase the impact of research in diverse contexts, to explore new development paths, and to find new ways to accelerate transitions to sustainable development. It builds on a huge legacy of global change research carried out by previous global programs, but places a greater emphasis on co-design and co-production of research to speed up the delivery of knowledge to decision-makers.

Future Earth recently released a 2025 Vision which identifies eight societal challenges to which the platform aims to contribute. One of these relates directly to the issues addressed at this conference—‘Build healthy, resilient and productive cities by identifying and shaping innovations that combine better urban environments and lives with declining resource footprints, and provide efficient services and infrastructures that are robust to disasters’. Many of the other challenges intersect with urban issues also, as noted above.

As the Academies’ process towards developing a business plan for Future Earth in Australia evolves, we anticipate that urban issues in Australia and Asia will be one key priority. To be effective, the process will need to link with city networks at multiple scales, and tackle the reality that stakeholders are diverse in cities; yet decisions taken in cities will substantially determine the future of global sustainability.

Overall, Cities in Future Earth increased the participants’ understanding of urban systems and complexity. It also provided some clear examples of future challenges and opportunities in solving the big questions concerning urban sustainability. However, the dimensions of change required and the limits to adaptation are not well understood. Improving connections between leading research and practice will be a cornerstone to sustainable solutions.

Finally, cities will have a future but may be very different in different parts of the world. Some will survive and some will not, given the environmental, economic and social consequences of living within our planetary boundaries.

Professor Barbara Norman (University of Canberra)
Professor Will Steffen (ANU and University of Canberra)
Dr. Mark Stafford Smith (CSIRO)

15 December 2014

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science