Urban and Suburban Sprawl

Not all of a city’s residents live within the urban cores. Over half of all people live in the suburbs rather than in the city or rural areas. There was a suburban sprawl model developed to explain U.S. development called the peripheral model. This model states that urban areas consist of a CBD followed by sizeable suburban areas of business and residential developments. The outer regions of the suburbs become transition zones of rural areas.

The attraction to suburbs is low crime rates, lack of social and economic problems, detached single-family housing, access to parks, and usually better schooling. These are universal generalizations and not necessarily true everywhere. Suburbs also tend to create economic and social segregation, where tax revenues and social resources provide better funding opportunities than in inner cities.

Of course, there is also a cost to suburban sprawling. Developers are always looking for cheaper land to build, which usually means developing rural areas and farmland rather than expanding next to existing suburbs. Air pollution and traffic congestion also become a problem as working households are required to travel farther to and from work. Suburbs tend to be less commuter-friendly to those who walk or bike because the model of development is based around vehicle transportation.

Water is another challenge to urban growth. It is an elemental part of the fabric of urban lives, providing sustenance and sanitation, commerce, and connectivity. Our fundamental needs for water have always determined the location, size, and form of our cities, just as water shapes the character and outlook of their citizens. Urban health is inextricably linked with water. From the first cities, planners have appreciated the potential linkages of water with health and the need for consistent water supplies. Indeed, the modern field of public health owes a substantial debt to the sanitary engineers who strove to provide potable water and safe disposal of human wastes in burgeoning cities of the Industrial Revolution.

Scientists and decision-makers have recently begun to appreciate that, as in the case of other urban systems, the linkages between water management, health, and sustainability are involved in ways that undermine the effectiveness of traditional approaches. Unprecedented urban populations and densities, urban inequities, and urban mobility pose new problems, and climate change adds a novel and uncharted dimension. This has, in some cases, led to worsening urban health, or increased risks. For instance, some water-associated diseases like dengue are on the rise globally, while others, like cholera, continue to pose serious threats elsewhere. Many regions face increased food and water scarcity, and many urban slums present conditions that challenge effective water management.

Cities and Sustainability

While there are numerous definitions of sustainable development, many start with the definition provided in the 1987 Brundtland report: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The goals for sustainable cities are grounded on a similar understanding – urban development, which strives to meet the essential needs of all, without overstepping the limitations of the natural environment. A sustainable city has to achieve a dynamic balance among economic, environmental, and socio-cultural development goals, framed within a local governance system characterized by deep citizen involvement and inclusiveness.

A core component of sustainable cities is sustainable infrastructure – the interconnected physical and organizational structure, set of services and systems that support the daily functioning of a society and its economy. Sustainable infrastructure is that which is designed, developed, maintained, reused, and operated in a way that ensures minimal strain on resources, the environment, and the economy. It contributes to enhanced public health and welfare, social equity, and diversity. Investment in sustainable infrastructure is pivotal in planning for the sustainable development of cities. Despite the importance of urban infrastructure, there is a clear under-investment as characterized by the backlog and state of deficient infrastructure. Globally, $57 trillion is needed for infrastructure investment between 2013 and 2030 to support economic growth and urbanization. This is of particular concern about developing countries, where many large cities experience severe congestion, and to developing countries, where improved primary socioeconomic conditions have been long overdue.

As a factor of inclusion and integration, urban mobility has a specific transformative role. Urban mobility is a multidimensional concept, encapsulating the multitude of physical components about urban transport (air, road, and rail systems, waterways, light and heavy rail, cable cars), including the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of mobility. Sustainable urban mobility provides efficient access to goods, services, job markets, social connections, and activities while limiting both short and long-term adverse consequences on social, economic, and environmental services and systems. A sustainable mobility strategy serves to protect the health of users and the environment, while fostering and promoting the city’s economic prosperity.

City dwellers are negatively impacted by inadequate and inefficient public transit systems, low-density development, urban sprawl, and the growing distance between residents and their place of employment, markets, education, and health facilities. Although faced with enormous challenges, behavioral, technological, and political shifts, cities remain at the forefront of transformative changes to improve quality of life through investing in connected, sustainable urban mobility.

An evolving trend is a cultural shift away from auto-dependency. Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo are examples of cities where the costs of car ownership and use have been set high, and planning strategies have emphasized development patterns oriented to transit, walking, and cycling. In Europe and the U.S., the popularity of the sharing economy has allowed people to move to more walkable, livable urban communities. Consequently, urban space is being reimagined, leading to denser and greener cities, enhanced flow of traffic, improved walkability, and increased use of public transit. This shift could catalyze reinvestment in public transport and a reduction in automobile subsidies, while also allowing for equitable access. New mobility services and products such as e-hailing, autonomous driving, in-vehicle connectivity, and car-sharing systems offer multimodal, demand transportation alternatives.

More compact, better-connected cities with low-carbon transport could save as much as $3 trillion in urban infrastructure spending over the next 15 years. This would simultaneously result in substantial annual returns due to energy savings, higher productivity, and reduced healthcare costs. The private sector and civil society can also help city leaders advance sustainable mobility, with improvements in telecommunications technology. For instance, the Paris-based company BlaBlaCar has developed an online platform that connects passengers with private drivers and allows them to book seats for long-distance journeys. Increased passenger numbers per car reduce carbon emissions and improve the quality of life.

If the world is to achieve its sustainable development goals, and reach targets that range from eradicating poverty and social inequity, to combating climate change and ensuring a healthy and livable environment, global efforts in the transition to sustainable energy are pivotal. As cities represent more than 70 percent of global energy demand, they have been playing a central role in moving the sustainable energy agenda forward. The current global share of renewable energy supply is 11 percent. The diversity of renewable energy resources is vast, and research indicates a potential contribution of renewable energy reaching 60 percent of total world energy supply.

While many renewable energy technologies remain more costly than conventional sources and are often site-specific, investment in renewable cleaner energy can reduce health impacts from environmental pollution and climate change. Increasing renewable energy sources, maximizing conservation, and lessening dependence on non-renewable sources of energy, mainly those most damaging and contributing to global warming, are critical steps to sustainable cities.

Cities are harnessing local capabilities to develop green technologies and renewable energy sources that enhance their ability to withstand climate-related shocks as well as boosting local economies. Governments are investing in green technologies, presenting an excellent opportunity for cities to channel their innovation capabilities into a new sector of the economy. The economies of scale and concentration of enterprises and innovation in cities make it cheaper and easier to take actions to minimize both emissions and climate hazards.

The risks that cities are now facing as a result of climate change and natural disasters, the pressing short-falls in urban water, sanitation and waste management services, and the deteriorating quality of air and water, are being experienced in the context of their rapid growth. A growing international focus on resilience is a core agenda item for cities today. The increase in severe weather and natural disasters has highlighted the need for cities to respond better, mitigate, and adapt to such events. This includes being able to respond to such risks in ways that minimize the impact on the social, environmental, and economic infrastructure of the cities. Consequently, city leaders have been making significant transformative changes and investments in the resilience of their cities.

Any city’s resilience to external shock relies primarily on effective institutions, governance, urban planning, and infrastructure. In this respect, the U.N. Office for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) has set out several general practical recommendations for urban authorities.

A critical aspect of the creation of resilient cities in the construction of physical infrastructure, that can absorb the shocks and stresses created by extreme weather events. Climate change is putting pressure on infrastructure that is already overtaxed from deferred maintenance, population growth, and development. As municipalities plan, design, and implement sustainable infrastructure projects; they need to consider the impact of extreme weather and natural disasters on the city’s physical infrastructure to build resilience.

There is a growing consensus that good governance is crucial to developing, maintaining, and restoring sustainable and resilient services and social, institutional, and economic activity in cities. Many city governments are weakened due to limited power and responsibility for essential public services, including planning, housing, roads and transit, water, land-use, drainage, waste management, and building standards. City governments also often lack the power to raise revenues to finance infrastructure and build more sustainable and resilient cities. When governance capacity is weak and constrained, cities are limited in their abilities to take programmatic action on climate change mitigation and adaptation. The multiple forms of risk and vulnerability in cities call for more integrated approaches, combining established policies (urban governance, planning, and management) with additional policy leverage, powers, and responsibilities for local government.

Sustainable, resilient, and inclusive cities are often the outcome of good governance that encompasses effective leadership, land-use planning, jurisdictional coordination, inclusive citizen participation, and efficient financing. Strong, effective leadership is critical for overcoming fragmentation across departments, multiple levels of government, and investment sectors when building consensus and eliciting action on specific agendas. Land-use planning across these broad urban regions is another key criterion for effective governance. Territorial and spatial strategies are central in addressing climate change risks and building effective mitigation and adaptation strategies. Coordination across the metropolitan area is fundamental not only in areas such as land, transport, energy, emergency preparedness, and related fiscal and funding solutions, but in addressing issues of poverty and social exclusion through innovative mechanisms of inter-territorial solidarity.

Including stakeholders in the urban planning process is critical to creating livable, sustainable cities, where citizens are active players in determining their quality of life. Including stakeholders in the design of infrastructure, urban space, and services legitimize the urban planning process and allow cities to leverage their stakeholders’ expertise. Finance, however, can be a significant impediment to effective governance. Municipal governments around the world are increasingly looking for new and innovative ways to finance sustainable projects. Consequently, partnership with the private sector is increasing since the private sector has capital not available to the public sector.

Sustainable Development Moving Forward

On May 28th, 2013, students in Istanbul, Turkey, staged a sit-in protest against an urban development project to build a mall in the city’s most significant green space, Gezi Park. One hundred activists were met with police opposition on May 30th, when water cannons and tear gas were used to disperse the crowds who had gathered in front of the green space. Finally, the tents and belongings of the protestors were burned, and the park was barricaded.

Using the Internet, the activists reached out for help and organized a massive effort to retake control of the park. The protests soon poured into the street as others, emboldened by police actions, joined the students in the park and Taksim Square. As the crowds grew, the protests soon began focusing on issues beyond development and became a protest against the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whom many feel stifle democracy and opposition in the country.

While the movement has mostly become an anti-government protest, calling for reforms and the resignation of the Prime Minister, its initial goal as a desire to preserve green space in the city, and subsequent evolution, highlights how the environmental movement and democracy are entwined. Further, the protestors made use of social media and technology to organize a large group of people in a short amount of time. This use of technology has become unprecedented in recent years as smartphones, and the Internet helped protests to grow instantly. As in other environmental demonstrations such as the WTO “Battle in Seattle” in 1999, the main organizers are young college-aged students, showing that the environment remains a central concern to today’s youth.

Opponents of globalization fear that uncontrolled economic growth, fueled by free trade, harms the environment by causing more pollution and exhaustion of natural resources. Many of now see environmental problems as being of international concern, not just national interest—such as protection of the oceans and the atmosphere from pollution. The environment is now considered the “common heritage of mankind,” and environmental problems are increasingly the subject of international efforts because of their cross-border effects and the impossibility that just one or anew nations can solve these problems on their own. Furthermore, they suspect that environmental protection laws are weakened under the guise of promoting free trade by corporations and governments unconcerned about the adverse environmental effects of commerce.

In contrast, many corporations, governments, and citizens in developing countries (and some in developed countries as well) are willing to accept a certain level of environmental damage in exchange for economic well-being. They fear that environmental protection laws are ways for developed countries to prevent their goods from competing fairly.

As a strategy, sustainable development recognizes that past policies sometimes achieved progress by means that could not be kept up over time. For example, in the 1990s, between 10,000 and 30,000 square kilometers a year of Brazilian rainforest were cleared, fueling rapid economic growth in farming and ranching operations. In the short term, the practice created jobs and increased food production, but environmental damage caused by the clearing made much of the newly cleared land unusable in the longer term; the net result in many cases was a negative economic outcome.

Environmental protection can entail a drag on economic growth in the short-term. Industries that have to adjust to environmental regulations face disruption and higher costs, harming their competitive position. The question is what to make of this. Some argue that it may be worth slower economic growth to protect the environment. Others say that the free market and technological advances are the best tools to solve environmental problems and lift people out of poverty, rather than greater regulation.

The link between the environment and economic development may be more complicated than that, however. In fact, in many ways, protecting the environment and promoting economic growth are complementary goals. Poverty in developing countries is a leading cause of environmental degradation. For instance, “slash-and-burn” land- clearing by subsistence farmers has been a significant cause of depletion of the Amazon rainforest. Boosting economic growth may then be a useful tool to promote the protection of the environment. This is the idea behind the sustainable development movement, which seeks to advance economic opportunities for poorer nations in environmentally friendly ways.

Sustainable consumption and production are about promoting resource and energy efficiency, sustainable infrastructure, and providing access to essential services, green and decent jobs and a better quality of life for all. Its implementation helps to achieve overall development plans, reduce future economic, environmental, and social costs, strengthen economic competitiveness, and reduce poverty.

Sustainable consumption and production aim at “doing more and better with less,” increasing net welfare gains from economic activities by reducing resource use, degradation and pollution along the whole lifecycle, while increasing quality of life. It involves different stakeholders, including businesses, consumers, policymakers, researchers, scientists, retailers, media, and development cooperation agencies, among others.

It also requires a systemic approach and cooperation among actors operating in the supply chain, from producer to final consumer. It involves engaging consumers through awareness-raising and education on sustainable consumption and lifestyles, providing consumers with adequate information through standards and labels, and engaging in sustainable public procurement, among others.

  • Each year, an estimated one-third of all food produced – equivalent to 1.3 billion tons worth around $1 trillion – ends up rotting in the bins of consumers and retailers, or spoiling due to poor transportation and harvesting practices
  • If people worldwide switched to energy-efficient lightbulbs the world would save US$120 billion annually
  • Should the global population reach 9.6 billion by 2050, the equivalent of almost three planets could be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles

Policymakers all over the world are facing similar challenges. While we certainly know that the climate will change, there is considerable uncertainty as to what the local or regional impacts will be and what will be the impacts on societies and economies. Coupled with this is often significant disagreement among policymakers about underlying assumptions and priorities for action.

Many decisions to be made today have long-term consequences and are sensitive to climate conditions – water, energy, agriculture, fisheries forests, and disaster risk management. We cannot afford to get it wrong.

However, sound decision making is possible if we use a different approach. Rather than making decisions that are optimized to a prediction of the future, decision-makers should seek to identify decisions that are sound no matter what the future brings. Such decisions are called “robust.”

For example, Metropolitan Lima already has significant water challenges: shortages and a rapidly growing population with 2 million underserved urban poor. Climate models suggest that precipitation could decrease by as much as 15 percent, or increase by as much as 23 percent. The World Bank is partnering with Lima to apply tested, state-of-the-art methodologies like Robust Decision Making to help Lima identify no-regret, robust investments. These include, for example, multi-year water storage systems to manage droughts and better management of demand for water. This can help increase Lima’s long-term water security, despite an increasingly unpredictable future.

With advances in transportation and information technology, even the most remote places on Earth are within reach of the traveler. Tourism is now the world’s largest industry, with nature tourism the fastest growing service sector. Tourism in a globalized world can also pose environmental challenges. Unsustainable tourism may cause overcrowding and pressure on local infrastructure and services, and fragile local ecosystems. Indiscriminate tourism development can encourage intensive or inappropriate land use and contribute to coastal zone degradation. Disposal of liquid and solid wastes generated by the tourism industry may also strain the capacity of local infrastructure to treat the additional wastes generated by tourism activities.

To mitigate these economic, social, cultural, and environmental impacts, the United Nations has recommended that governments rely on sustainable ecotourism, while taking into account local carrying capacity for tourism.

Ecotourism is environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past, and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socioeconomic involvement of local peoples. Ecotourism is distinguished by its emphasis on conservation, education, traveler responsibility, and active community participation. Specifically, ecotourism possesses the following characteristics:

  • Conscientious, low-impact visitor behavior
  • Sensitivity towards, and appreciation of, local cultures and biodiversity
  • Support for local conservation efforts
  • Sustainable benefits to local communities
  • Local participation in decision-making
  • Educational components for both the traveler and local communities

Ecotourism that establishes a suitable balance between the environmental, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development, also plays a vital role in conserving biodiversity. It attempts to minimize its impact on the environment and local culture so that it will be available for future generations, while contributing to generate income, employment, and the conservation of local ecosystems.

By doing so, sustainable tourism maximizes the positive contribution of tourism to biodiversity conservation and, thus, to poverty reduction and the achievement of common goals towards sustainable development.

Sustainable tourism provides crucial economic incentives for habitat protection. Revenues from visitor spending are often channeled back into nature conservation or capacity building programs for local communities to manage protected areas.

Furthermore, ecotourism can be a crucial vehicle in raising awareness and fostering positive behavior change for biodiversity conservation among the millions of people traveling the globe every year.

Connected Cities

Over the last two decades, the transformative power of urbanization has, in part, been facilitated by the rapid deployment of Information and Communications Technology (ICT), and by a revolution in city data to inform decision-making and propel a global movement to smart cities. This has been accompanied by deeper connectivity of cities at local and global levels.

Cities have to contend with a wide range of challenges, from crime prevention, to more efficient mobility, to creating healthier environments, to more energy-efficient city systems, to emergency preparedness, among others. To address these challenges, the Internet of things, or networked connections in cities and data, are deployed to improve service delivery and quality of life. The use of data allows cities to measure their performance and to re-inform investments in city infrastructure. Cities are increasingly relying on metrics and globally comparable city data to guide more effective and smarter city decision-making that build efficiencies in city budgets.

Central to the communications revolution is the deployment of ICT in cities. High- quality infrastructure, innovation, investment, well-connected firms, efficiencies in energy and budgets, are often cited as ICT-driven benefits to cities. However, the potential consequences of this deployment are yet not well understood. When ICT is deployed unevenly in cities, it can create a digital divide— which can exacerbate inequality, characterized by well-connected affluent neighborhoods and business districts coexisting with under-serviced and under-connected low- income neighborhoods. The wealthy tend to have greater access to these technologies, and ICT can often serve to extend their reach and control while curbing that of the more socioeconomically marginalized residents.

Over the past two decades, the growth and expansion of mobile networks have been extensive and overtaken most predictions, changing the course of development for the post-2015 era. According to the Eriksson mobility report, the total number of mobile subscriptions in the third quarter of 2015 was 7.3 billion, with 87 million new subscriptions. For the vast majority of low-income population in emerging countries, mobile telephony is likely to be the sole connectivity channel. Although an affordable and reliable internet is not yet a reality for the majority of people in the world, the technology has proliferated since inception, spurring enormous innovation, various network expansion, and increased user engagement in a virtuous circle of growth. The number of internet users stood at one billion in 2005 and two billion in 2010, reaching over three billion by 2015.

As a transformative force, the deployment of ICT in cities supports innovation and poverty eradication, by promoting efficiencies in urban infrastructure, leading to lower-cost city services. In some cases, urban economies can leapfrog stages of development by deploying new technologies in the initial construction of infrastructure. Cities like Hong Kong and Singapore are notable examples of economies that were able to make this leap by digitizing their infrastructure. Shows how the city of Kigali in Rwanda is providing internet connectivity to its residents via the public bus system. In 2010, Curitiba, Brazil, was the first city in the world to connect public buses to a 3g mobile-broadband network. Such innovation opened up new possibilities for traveler services that helped commuters plan their route and enabled them to purchase tickets wherever and whenever it is most convenient. Cities worldwide, such as Chicago, London, and Vancouver, are implementing digital inclusion programs to ensure that all citizens have the tools to thrive in an increasingly digitalized world. As cities depend increasingly on electronic information and technology for their functioning and service delivery, city leaders are proceeding with caution to avoid an unequal distribution of ICT and to examine ways to bridge the digital divide.

The ever-increasing application of data and the Internet of things is supporting a much more collaborative relationship between city governments, citizens, and businesses. This trend is driving the smart cities phenomenon worldwide. The definition of a smart city continues to evolve, but a consistent component is the application of ICT and the Internet of things to address urban challenges. Many conceptual frameworks of smart cities also consider sustainability, innovation, and governance as essential components in addition to the application of ITC. The International Telecommunication Union defines a smart, sustainable city as “an innovative city that uses information and communication technologies and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations concerning economic, social, environmental as well as cultural aspects.”

A smart city can guide better decision-making concerning prosperity, sustainability, resilience, emergency management, or effective and equitable service delivery. The city of Rio de Janeiro collaborated with IBM, to create a municipal operations center that combines data and information from city and state agencies, and private utility and transportation companies to collaborate on logistics and management challenges. The city, faced with growing concerns in flooding and traffic gridlock, can now monitor data and provide citizens with relevant information via mobile phones and other warning systems.105 Barcelona is a leading smart city for its application of innovative solutions aimed at improving city services and the quality of life of its citizens. Barcelona’s smart city model aims “to use ICT to transform the business processes of public administration…to be more accessible, efficient, effective, and transparent.” Singapore has also been at the forefront of the smart city movement; its smart nation program seeks to harness ICT, networks, and data to support better living, create more opportunities, and to support stronger communities.107 Singapore was the first city in the world to introduce congestion pricing and, now, by using more advanced systems, can analyze traffic data in real-time to adjust prices. One hundred eight technology solutions and the effective use of data are providing city leadership with new tools and opportunities for effective change.

Estimates show that the global smart city market will grow by 14 percent annually, from the U.S. $506.8 billion in 2012 to the U.S. $1.3 trillion in 2019. Over the next two decades, city governments in the U.S. will invest approximately U.S. $41 trillion to upgrade their infrastructure and take advantage of the Internet of things. With China’s cities projected to grow by 350 million people over the next 20 years, investment in smart cities is expected to exceed the U.S. $159 billion in 2015 and the U.S. $320 billion by 2014. India announced plans to build 100 smart cities, in response to the country’s growing population and pressure on the urban infrastructure. To realize the potential of ICT towards sustainable development, an enabling environment has to be created, with participatory governance models, the modernized infrastructure, and technology (capacity building, ensuring inclusion, and bridging the digital divide.


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Introduction to Human Geography Copyright © 2019 by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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