In the City: Committing to Sustainable Urbanization |
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Climate and Energy Blog


In the City: Committing to Sustainable Urbanization

Mon, 08/17/2015 - 1:07pm -- Jason Vargo

It’s the middle of August and in Madison that means thousands of people are entering into a new commitment—in the form of a lease. A lot of thought about cost, location, and amenities goes into these decisions. This isn’t, however, the most serious commitment that young people today are a part of. There are a couple of things we, as a species, have committed to that will last much longer than any single apartment lease.

The first is our commitment to the global climate crisis. The effects of climate change are already upon us and will continue. This summer has been another full of heat waves around the globe, setting new record highs. Even if carbon emissions ceased today, the legacy of our activities would leave the climate system reeling for centuries to come. The latest IPPC report estimated that global temperatures would decrease very slowly, if at all. And with emerging evidence of feedback loops—the melting tundra is releasing large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas with 28 times the warming potential than carbon dioxide—the possibility of irreversible change is becoming more real.

We’re attempting to stop all carbon emissions, even though we’re still struggling to regulate them, and we’re barely allowed to talk about them. Until recently, there has been scant meaningful leadership on this issue. But in the past months Catholic leadership, the US and China, some of the world’s leading health authorities, and the White House have all sought to take a stand on climate change. This is all in anticipation of the international meetings taking place Paris this December, which many believe to be the most meaningful attempt at a global accord to combat climate change since Kyoto. Perhaps we are moving in the right direction.

The other certain trend of the 21st Century is that of urbanization. This is the century of cities and the age of the metro sapiens. Today about 3.5 billion people live in urban areas, with another 5 billion expected by 2100. The explosion in urban populations is directly connected to our current climate crisis. But for many reasons our inertia toward cities can become an opportunity to reimagine the future to which we are committed.

Globally we’ve committed to a future of climate disruption and urbanization; the problems are linked, but so are the solutions.

But what is so dangerous about urbanization? The devil is in the details. The stark urban-rural classification used to generate the global estimates washes over a lot of the nuance to urbanism. I’m sure everyone reading this can talk about some of the differences they’ve experienced between visiting places like Milwaukee, Madison, or McFarland. There are degrees to urbanism, which characterize the variety, number, and connectedness of people and places.

A place does not have to be a giant metropolis to have urban character, but urban places do organize people and places more densely. The resulting arrangement consumes less land per person, requires each of us to use less fuel for our homes and cars, and might even make us better neighbors. This is the embodied efficiency of urbanism.

Consider the case of this country. As the highest historic carbon emitter with one of the largest per capita carbon footprints where more than 80% of the population is ‘urban’ according to the global estimates, it would appear there’s not much urbanization left for the United States to do. That is until you consider that more than 66% of Americans actually live in places that might self-identify as suburban. These locations are highly subsidized through home-buying credits, municipal borrowing, and low gas taxes. Most of us live somewhere between the farm and downtown, but if the place you live looks more like a traditional downtown you probably are responsible for less carbon being emitted.

Total GHG emissions per household by zip code (tCO2equiv). Taken from & Jones, C., & Kammen, D. M. (2014). Spatial distribution of US household carbon footprints reveals suburbanization undermines greenhouse gas benefits of urban population density. Environmental Science & Technology, 48(2), 895-902.

Scientists have observed this. This map of the Midwest shows the household carbon contributions from transportation, housing, food, goods, and services (originally published here with an interactive map available here). Cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP), Milwaukee (MKE), Madison (MSN), and Grand Rapids, MI are all identifiable as green islands – their household carbon contributions are on par with the most sparsely populated portions of the region.

What does our experience in the US have to offer the rest of the rapidly urbanizing world?

Although mega cities (more than 10 million people) tend to capture headlines, most urban residents live in cities of less than 1 million people. Cities this size are being built everyday. This is the great urban opportunity in the coming century. Similar to the telecom example of ‘leapfrogging’ in developing countries—in which populations adopted cellular technology as their first telephone experience, expanding communication capabilities to millions without an investment in expensive hardwired infrastructure by industry and government—emerging cities can adopt new technologies, policies, and designs to lower carbon contributions, and ultimately improve residents’ lives.

A modified urban future could improve equity, livelihoods, housing, and the environment. Like with global climate, a strong sustainable development framework backed by an international accord will be necessary to influence global urbanization. In addition to the major meetings (and hopefully meaningful progress) being made on climate this year, leaders and thinkers from around the world are preparing to discuss cities in a global context. Next October in Quito, Ecuador the UN will host their Habitat III summit. It will be the third global conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. While I remain hopeful for the climate negotiations later this year, any resulting agreements and their implementation will hinge on the ability of existing and emerging cities to govern, institutionalize, and finance their urban growth.

Think of this August as a time to re-evaluate the commitments you’re a part of. What are you doing to change them and how could they be better? Then next year, when you’re looking for a new apartment, ask yourself, “With this move, am I urbanizing?”


Jason Vargo is an assistant scientist with the Global Health Institute and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies with a background in urban environmental planning and public health. His work explores the impact of urban planning decisions on the environment and human health.

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