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The Urban Endgame

Cities are one of the central forces driving a sustainable future.

According to Karen Seto, Professor of Geography and Urbanization at Yale F&ES, cities are not only laboratories for sustainability, but they are defining the newest frontiers of sustainability. Cities are where we will see changes that matter, and where we will transform how our society uses energy and resources.

Seto offered this insight at Scale Up, this year’s annual U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development Conference held June 25-26. She was responding to a question posed by conference organizers and attendees: how can projects that address urban planning, building efficiency, and mobility on a macro level utilize cities as a lab to introduce, test, and deploy new ideas and methodologies that promote urban sustainability?

Seto began by presenting results from the Human Settlements, Infrastructure, and Spatial Planning chapter of the IPCC Mitigation Working Group’s contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). Seto was a lead author of this chapter, which was released earlier this year. The findings reveal that urban areas are the focal point of energy use and CO2 emissions, consuming and emitting around three-quarters of global totals. Within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), cities nonetheless produce fewer emissions per capita than their countries’ national averages. But the opposite is true of cities in non-OECD countries, where much of the future urban growth will occur. Across the globe, and in non-OECD countries in particular, urban areas are the fastest growing human habitat, as people flock to centers where jobs are plentiful and access to modern technology is available.

In light of the need to reduce global carbon emissions, the fact that our growing global population is demanding access to energy-intensive urban areas may sound like a complex and daunting challenge. But Seto brought a message of optimism to the conference. She framed the issue of unprecedented population growth in urban areas as, in fact, a source of unprecedented opportunity for business and industry to implement positive change.

With a growing population and a global shift toward urban centers, it is estimated that we will double or triple our urban infrastructure in the next quarter-century. This means that two-thirds of our future urban areas have yet to be designed and built. Given this outlook, Seto urged everyone to search for and identify “synergistic win-win solutions” to unsustainable practices in cities. She noted that there are “great achievements to target at the local level.”

For example, Seto identifies urban form as an important factor in determining a city’s greenhouse gas emissions. More specifically, co-locating denser centers of residential and commercial activities will reduce transportation emissions, which account for about 27 percent of total urban emission. And as societies’ tastes change, this density may actually lead to happier people.

Further, Seto stresses that the critical piece of the puzzle for achieving the sustainability outcomes we need is pursuing strategies that cut across sectors. The traditional approach of separating planning agencies from sustainability offices, of separating energy from water from transportation departments, will continue to obscure systemic changes that could allow us to create more efficiently designed cities. Here, we see an opportunity for the private sector to pursue public-private partnerships, allowing innovative ideas from the business world to infiltrate city infrastructure.

With this realization and her time on stage at an end, Seto made clear that the recognition of today’s problems is the first step toward tomorrow’s solutions. Cities may be a testing ground for projects coming up, but they are also the central force driving a sustainable future. They are the endgame.

Sarah Bolthrunis is an MBA/MESc joint-degree student (‘16) at Yale School of Management and Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her academic and professional interests focus on coastal adaptation to climate change impacts. Specifically, her summer research is in assessing the economic risks faced by coastal energy infrastructure due to sea level rise and storm surge. In her free time, Sarah enjoys marathon training and experimenting with vegan food.

Photo from tokyoform/flickr