50% of the world’s population lives in a city, and that number is projected to jump to over 70% by 2050 as people seek new opportunities in urban environments. At the same time, a new study illustrates that city life is not without its hazards, and we’re not referring to muggings and trouble finding parking. Many cities are uniquely vulnerable to climate change as a result of ecological, sociological and economic pressures, and this should concern people interested in the long-term survival of humanity as well as the longevity of cities themselves.
Urban areas typically form around locations ideal for trade, which unfortunately puts them right in the path of climate change-related problems. Low-lying ground near harbors and coastlines, for example, may be well-suited to shipping, but puts cities at risk of flooding and subsidence. New York City’s flooding during Sandy is a stark illustration of the threats climate change pose to cities, and residents of cities across the world can expect more devastating weather events in the years to come.
Other cities are located in areas prone to desertification due to prolonged poor land use and soil management practices, or subject to air inversion with heavy pollution due to their location and the presence of industry. In the African and Asian cities evaluated by the United Kingdom Department of International Development, researchers noted that many cities also faced “water and food systems risks,” a core infrastructure problem that can only get more acute with more residents.
Infrastructure issues beyond access to water and food include public transit, garbage handling, electricity and other needs of daily life. These issues are not limited to the Global South, though they can be acute in regions where nations lack funding and personnel to address them. In cities like London, for instance, roadway infrastructure and crowding caused by cars has become acute enough for the city to institute draconian driving regulations, including congestion charges on drivers in key areas.
The researchers caution that cities and urban planners need to be thinking ahead to anticipate and address environmental needs. Smart growth and development are key to preventing devastation in the world’s cities as they grow and the challenges they face increase. Developing without oversight and adequate preparations could be catastrophic, especially in regions with large populations fleeing to urban areas as a result of declining opportunities in rural locations.
Sprawl can also be an issue. Density is highly variable in cities around the world, from tightly-packed Tokyo and New York to sprawling Houston. Dense development can come with environmental benefits, including more greenspace and buffer zones which can potentially protect people from flooding and other hazards. But it also comes with potential risks; crowded cities can quickly develop strained infrastructure, and can develop extremely high costs of living that put low-income residents at a social disadvantage. Crowding in a city with high poverty and poor infrastructure can contribute to the rise and spread of disease, which could tear quickly through a dense city with a massive population.
Balancing the need to house human beings with the desire to protect the environment as well as the human race is critical in the years ahead, as the global population and its cities reach a critical cusp for action.
Photo credit: Ron Henry