The sustainability of a city can no longer be considered in isolation from the sustainability of human and natural resources it uses from proximal or distant regions, or from the combined resource use and impacts of cities globally.
This is the main conclusion of a recent study that looked at the stewardship implications of rapidly expanding urbanization relative to the planet's limited resources.
Cities are rapidly increasing in importance as a major factor shaping the Earth system, argue the study's authors and therefore, must take corresponding responsibility.
With currently over half the world's population, cities are supported by resources originating from primarily rural regions often located around the world far distant from the urban area of use.
Many self-proclaimed sustainable cities ignore the environmental footprint of imported goods and services. Imported food, water and energy, for example, are often overlooked when developing strategies for 'green cities'.
The authors of the study suggest creating partnerships between urban and rural areas, thus enabling citizens and policy-makers to comprehend their relationship with the rural land as well as with other cities through a systems approach, and to improve efficiencies outside of the city limits.
The planet's population will reach nine billion in less than 40 years and 'total urban area is expected to triple between 2000 and 2030. On this kind of trajectory, more than 15,000 football fields (FIFA accredited) will become urban every day during the first three decades of the 21st century.
In other words, humankind is expected to build more urban areas during the first thirty years of this century than all of history combined'. The net result is decreasing productive land with increasing population needs and a soaring emissions profile.
The outsourcing of manufacturing to foreign countries is an important factor when reviewing environmental footprints for a given region.
In Canada, for example, extracting oil from the tar sands is extremely energy-intensive. When that oil is shipped and further processed elsewhere, the full life-cycle emissions are not accounted for.
Similarly, the energy required for producing cell phones, laptops, wind turbines and other goods is rarely considered at their destinations. Implementing a life-cycle analysis approach when developing sustainable strategies for a region will enable proponents to take into account the broader impacts of a city.
The ecological footprint, a concept developed under the supervision of University of British Columbia (UBC) professor William Rees, is another approach for calculating the true impact of cities and their total land requirements.
The planet, if shared appropriately between all its citizens, can offer two hectares per person. Canadian cities require almost four times that amount at present, using 7.25 hectares per person.
Testing the Concept
Planetary stewardship of the sort proposed in this study is essentially untested, notes the authors. Experimental case studies that include cities across a range of geographic, development, and cultural settings are an essential first step.
In addition, they suggest three priority areas of user-engaged research that are needed to bring planetary stewardship to practice.
1. Resources: Sustainable solutions require a deeper understanding of the geographic distribution of the planet's resources, flows, interconnected uses, resultant wastes and stressors, and environmental and social impacts. The response of the social-ecological system to shocks (e.g., hurricanes, earthquakes, severe droughts) must be a component of such studies.
2. Governance: We need empirical data on, for example, how the growing power and centrality of cities is appropriately connected to rural areas in terms of their empowerment and subsidiarity. This requires research on multi-dimensional networks that encompass different cities as well as the governance units along resource chains.
3. Information: Continuously updated information about coupled social-ecological systems is critical to achieve stewardship. Modern information technologies can support a system for monitoring and analysis of planetary conditions and support decision making at all levels.
The full study is available for download here
Adapted from PICS Clmate News Scan, November 13, 2012 Produced by: ISIS Research Centre, Sauder School of Business, in partnership with PICS. UBC Authors: Justin Bull, Chanda Brietzke, Liz Ferris, James Noble, Kristina Welch Editors: Neil Thomson, James Tansey Jessica Worsley, Tom Pedersen