Integrating Urban Planning Studies into the Global Sustainable Development Paradigm

By Finn Beckett-Hester, GLOBUS Correspondent

As of 2007, 50% of the world’s population lived in urban areas (Hanlon, 2007). Currently, the proportion is 55%, and is expected to increase to a massive 68% by 2050 (UNDESA, 2018) as growth becomes increasingly concentrated in urban areas. The highest rates of urbanisation are currently found in the global South, especially within megacities that have over 10 million residents. There are currently 47 megacities, which are concentrated in Southern and East Asia, most prominently in China which has some 15 megacities, India with five and Japan with three. Currently only one Western city ranks in the top 10 for city size – New York City. The greatest expansion of megacities is predicted to occur in low-middle income countries such as Brazil, Nigeria, and Egypt. Ultimately very few countries will have a higher proportion of rural population than urban population; those that remain are likely to be in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Pacific Island states. Therefore, the urban environment needs to be at the centre of the global sustainable development paradigm.

Urban planning is the technical and political process concerned with the design of land use and the built environment, incorporating factors such as waste, air, water, and infrastructure. Currently, the University of Warwick and broader academia does not engage sufficiently with questions of urban planning and sustainability: this article will explore the importance of considering urban planning, where the University of Warwick is lacking, and how this issue can be rectified however, and this is a major issue.

The significance of an urban-centric world population lies in its relationship with processes of climate change. The urban population influences climate change and is simultaneously affected by climate change. This logic must be viewed in the paradigm of mitigation and adaptation; by this I mean that urban centres must take strong institutional measures to reduce their ecological impact (mitigation), as well as developing resilience to the impacts of climate change (adaptation).

Resilience is the ability for populations to deal with and recover from the impacts of climatic disasters and events. Building resilience is more important now than ever, due to an increase in natural disasters caused by the weather. Studies show (OWD, 2018) that from 1980 to 2009 there was an 80% increase in climate-related disasters such as storm surges, hurricanes and heatwaves, much of which is attributed to urbanisation in regions prone to natural disasters. Importantly, resilience incorporates a “proactive approach to planning systems that applies across social spaces” (Vale, 2014: 1), placing urban planning at the centre of building resilience. While the impacts of climate change are a reality for millions of people for this and other reasons, we must still try and mitigate further climate change: this includes switching to sustainable forms of energy usage, creating green space, encouraging pedestrianisation and mass transportation, and eliminating urban sprawl through effective land-use to name a few.

To further examine the importance of building resilience and mitigation, I turn to the issue of water management, which includes supply and drainage, as an example of why effective urban planning is required. Water is essential to life. However, according to the IPCC around 150 million people live in cities with perennial water shortages (McDonald et al., 2011:6312) – defined as less than 100 litres per person per day of sustainable surface and groundwater flow within the urban area. Alongside the stress on water sources from a growing population, climate change will increase the risk of water scarcity for urban populations due to a reduction in groundwater and aquifer quality as a result of salinity intrusion, which occurs as a result of rising sea levels.

Furthermore, an increase in natural disasters such as flooding means that it is likely that urban areas will see increased contamination of water sources, reducing potable water availability as well as increasing the prevalence of water-borne diseases. Currently, less than 35% of cities in developing countries treat their wastewater, with 2.5 billion people lacking safe sanitation and 1.2 billion people lacking access to clean water. These numbers are projected to increase without effective flood management (e.g. increasing canopy coverage), and the capturing and processing of rainwater to make it potable (UNDESA, 2013:65).

Whilst it is beyond the scope of this article to investigate the comprehensive importance of urban planning and the areas that it addresses, I will briefly outline other salient issues for urban planning in achieving sustainable development. These include:

  1. Tackling the inequalities of underemployment through providing high-quality and secure jobs
  2. Building high-quality housing especially in developing centres such as Sudan and South Sudan whereby more than 90% of their urban populations live in informal settlements (NCID, 2018)
  3. The initiation of a full transformation in energy production from coal and other unsustainable sources to renewable energy

Addressing such issues is part of the ‘sustainable cities’ goal, which suggests that cities should meet their “inhabitants’ development needs without imposing unsustainable demands on local or global natural resources and systems” (UNDESA, 2013:61).

However, I propose that in the sphere of academia, and indeed the University of Warwick, there is not enough instruction or indeed research on the importance of urban planning in relation to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. As an example, in the Global Sustainable Development division, in which I study, there is a very limited offering of modules in urban planning. In the first instance, the module “Keeping the Phoenix Flying or Clipping its Wings?” which focused on local sustainable development in Coventry has been cancelled for the 2019/20 academic year. Consequently, the only module related to the built environment remaining is “Realising Sustainable Development” which focuses on local scale biodiversity, education and housing. However, the overall emphasis on urban planning in this module is limited. This is representative of the state of urban planning studies university-wide, which means that students at the University of Warwick (unless they choose to pursue a dissertation in a relevant area) will leave their undergraduate studies with a very limited understanding regarding how urban centres operate and how they can address urban issues.

To rectify this, there needs to be a step-change in knowledge-sharing, targeting the generation of a perspicacious and holistic understanding of how urban areas interact with the local climate – and indeed how climatic and ecological systems are impacted away from metropolitan areas – as well as an analysis of how strong institutions are quintessential to success. Secondly, students particularly of Global Sustainable Development must have the ability (through academic modules or programmes at the University of Warwick and elsewhere) to ascertain holistic knowledge on how urban areas can be planned in ways which address the three facets of sustainability (the economic, social, and environmental) to provide a high-quality life for urban residents.

Such modules must also incorporate a sociological analysis of developing social trends, such as how the emergence of the middle class in South East Asia and the Caribbean will impact energy usage, infrastructure and housing. In this sense, the key question is: how can we design urban areas so that well-being can be improved whilst preventing the depletion of resources and increase in carbon footprint? This sociological analysis will prove crucial in planning because low-, middle-, and high-income countries (and regions within these nations) all have different socio-economic requirements in areas such as employment, sustainably absorbing a growing urban population, housing, and transportation.

Rigorous urban planning must also be viewed as interdisciplinary, with strong connections to engineering and the development of new technologies such as autonomous vehicles and ‘smart city’ environments, which have the potential to revolutionise the ways that we conceptualise the built environment.

Currently the global sustainable development paradigm is not doing enough to articulate the importance of urban areas in achieving sustainable development despite urban areas being at the centre of future population growth. I am not calling for an urban-centric development paradigm which neglects issues and processes in rural areas, but a more holistic understanding of urban processes and issues, and the role of governance at multiple levels in these processes. This progression starts with academia: only when we start to take urban planning seriously will we effectively implement adaptation and mitigation measures to lead us to a more sustainable future.

Header image: Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

References

McDonald, R. & Green, P. & Balk, D. & Fekete, B. & Revenga, C. & Todd, M. & Montgomery, M. (2011) Urban growth, climate change, and freshwater availability. [online] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/232a/29c6d4de67134bf88b8b37c87d09a9e55052.pdf (Accessed 25 June 2019).

Our World in Data (OWD) (2018) Urbanization. [online] https://ourworldindata.org/urbanization (Accessed 25 June 2019).

UNDESA (2013) Towards Sustainable Cities [online] Available from: https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/policy/wess/wess_current/wess2013/Chapter3.pdf (Accessed 25 June 2019).

UNDESA (2018) 68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, says UN. [online] Available from: https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html (Accessed 25 June 2019)

Vale, L. (2014) The Politics of Resilient Cities: Whose resilience and whose city? Building Research & Information, 42(2), 191-201.

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