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Futureproofing cities: Taking a holistic look at tomorrow's city

Widespread city growth in the developing world is a challenge for the infrastructure builders, but an opportunity too for integrated development.

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Modern city: New challenges for infrastructure builders

The concept of civilisation is derived from the Roman word for city, and it is how and where a majority of humans live. More than half the world’s population is now urban and most of the rest want to be; around 75% it is expected by 2050. Some mega-city regions could soon exceed the UK in population size.

The migration and population growth driving major city expansion in coming years is creating massive demands for, and on, new infrastructure. At the same time there are growing problems of global warming, environmental damage, resource depletion and economic development for engineers to contend with, as even New York, one of the world’s foremost cities, has discovered to its enormous cost after Hurricane Sandy, perhaps as much as $50bn (£30bn) in damage and disruption.

New York is an old city and retrofitting it to cope, with new flood defences, resilient systems and so forth, an expensive business. But at least it has a grid plan; most cities of the “old world” simply sprawled outwards when they began expanding in the industrial age without any overall coherence.

For the world’s new cities, there are lessons to be learned. As they grow they have the opportunity to avoid some of the difficulties of the past, most of all by taking an integrated approach on development. They need to examine all the implications of each decision and most of all how systems or projects interact with others.

“There is a window of opportunity for many of the cities which are now expanding, to take a coherent and integrated approach to their growth,” suggests Atkins associate director planning and economics Roger Savage. By tackling problems in a holistic way they can “future proof” themselves for sustainability, economic viability and resilience, he says.

But it is a window that is also fastclosing, he warns, with every uncontrolled or misjudged development setting the future path literally in concrete. Allowing property development to take the form of uncontrolled ribbon development and sprawl - low density and car dependent - means high energy costs are guaranteed for transport needs; planning for structured urban mass transit early on - even relatively modest bus-based networks - and a more compact city means that residents can benefit from lower transport costs long term and are less vulnerable to future energy price spikes. Build over an aquifer and you add unnecessarily to water resource shortages or pollution; build in a flood plain and stack up future flood damage.

For the developing world the problems are potentially much greater too as they are often coping with limited finance and the greatest levels of deprivation and multi-dimensional poverty, at least in sectors of their cities. These are the most vulnerable people to the shocks and impacts of environmental risk from climate hazards, resource scarcity and degradation of ecosystems.

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“There is a window of opportunity for many cities to take an integrated approach to their growth”

Roger Savage, Atkins

That is doubly significant because, according to a new study, which Atkins has helped produce, 95% of the urban growth will be in just these developing countries. The report Future Proofing Cities was co-authored and researched with the UK government’s Department for International Development and University College, London.

“But there is a dearth of information and strategic guidance on many of these questions,” says Savage, and this is particularly true for the poorer countries. There are knowledge gaps about risks and possible strategic responses, and particularly on the interactions between them. Examining issues in an integrated way so that funds and resources can be effectively addressed to impact on two or three problems at once was until recently almost impossible to deliver on a practical level apart from neighbourhood scale initiatives.

“What you want to be able to do is to see the ‘win-win’ situations and even ‘triple wins’ which can have a transformational impact on cities,” says Savage “which help cities fund projects effectively and perhaps even lets them tap into various funding sources, for climate adaptation and or carbon reduction for example, to boost the city in other ways at the same time.” Finding ways to draw in private funds in partnership with the city is another option. But the typical silo approaches of most city administrations national funding streams and international aid does not help. Neither does an overall generic approach of much research.

“The majority of studies focus on measures to address one or two risks such as carbon emissions or flood risk with insufficient attention to factors like potential resources scarcity in food, energy and water, and the need to safeguard biodiversity,” says the report.

Equally “most policy guidance is inadequately tailored to the specific challenges facing cities with different characteristics,” says the “Future Proofing Cities” report. They might talk for example about “greening” cities without considering the risks they face and capacity to respond, or examining how there might be social and environmental benefits to be gained.

Much research is anyway aimed at “first world” cities and there is less data for developing areas. Gathering information on just how cities do vary and what tailored solutions are possible was an important starting point for the 10 month study behind the report. Atkins played a key role in building up an urban risk database for this drawing on a wide variety of international data, to assess multiple and interconnected risks.

The study looked at a large range of cities, 129 in all from India, sub-Saharan Africa, and south-east Asia. They were concentrated primarily in areas where the Department for International Development is involved.

From sifting and analysing a spectrum of indicators, the cities were boiled down into five major categories with common characteristics. These were those with a heavy carbon footprint, those with major climate hazards, and those facing risks to the support systems in their hinterland such as food and water and natural ecosystems. Then there were those with a low risk profile.

“Most studies focus on measures to address one or two risks such as carbon emission or flood risk”

Atkins’ Future Proofing Cities report

Perhaps unsurprisingly cities spanning two or more risk categories are the most significant not least because they included some of the very largest cities in the world, such as Mumbai and Delhi in India, Jakarta in Indonesia and Bangkok in Thailand, though smaller cities are also sometimes face multiple threats like India’s Guwahati and Bareilly. Most have high energy use and carbon footprints as well as suffering flood and cyclone events. High populations also stress the natural ecosystems and support systems around them.

Others need to concentrate their minds on particular problems like the high energy use which has occurred in Bangalore, where high rise development with largely glass façades has stretched energy use.

With the commonalities distilled a range of policy options could be built up that cities could use to tackle their different issues. These might be urban mass transport for carbon intensive cities or renewable energy generation.

For climate risk cities policies such as hard infrastructure are combined with more intangible solutions such as diversifying economic development away from climate sensitive activities, and managing vulnerable land areas more effectively. Cities depleting their hinterlands might consider urban agriculture or simple latrine programmes.

For some cities, where funds are available such as those in the Gulf states with access to oil revenues, there might also be the option to look at the kind of high-tech “Smart City” solutions currently being proposed, particularly by the IT corporations. Atkins has its own expertise in this sector too.

But this initial spectrum of solutions is not intended simply as a menu. “It is more an aid to seeing development as a complete process of integrated development,” says Savage.

“Whether we’re looking at developing cities or taking the principles and applying them to those in the developed world, the the three factors are identity, objectives and collaboration,” he says. Each city needs to be understood before setting the goals. Finally, getting people around the table to broker the partnerships linking technical skills, finance and delivery and helping city leaders bring it all together are central to making progress.

Tackling transport

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In developing countries there is still a love affair with cars. With private vehicle ownership increasing in countries like India, a key challenge facing the authorities is to curb this growth and at the same time provide a mass transit system to attract people onto a more sustainable form of travel.

Farshid Kamali, director in Atkins’ highways and transportation business, says: “A more integrated form of land use and transport policy will assist achieving the sustainability targets. Transit Oriented Developments (TOD) will promote dense developments at locations near mass transit stations, significantly increasing the options for people to use public transport or walk.

“In developed countries, the challenges are different. New mass transit systems are expensive and have limited opportunities, so authorities focus on end to end asset management of the existing network. Technology plays a key role in improving public transport in developed countries. The significant data collected helps manage the transport provision and also enabling individuals to better manage their own travel pattern. Another element which affects transport planning is the growing number of people who work from home. This reduces the need to travel and reduces pressure on our transport network.”

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