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Panama City glows at night (Photograph courtesy Thibault Houspic/Flickr)

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PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 24, 2014

he world's cities occupy 4 percent of the Earth's land area, yet they are home to more than half of the world's people. By 2030, that percentage will swell to 60 percent. Indeed, the United Nations projects that cities will absorb most of the world's population increase between now and 2050—more than two billion people—with the vast majority of urban expansion taking place in the developing world. (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Cities and Energy.")

Growing urbanization can be a plus for the environment, because people who live in dense cities drive less, their living spaces use less energy, and they require fewer resources. But there are also troubling trends, like increased traffic congestion, smog, and blight. Beijing's per-capita greenhouse gas emissions are higher than China's national average, and many U.S. cities are surrounded by suburbs with large carbon footprints. It will be important to pay attention to how we build cities, if we want metropolitan areas that make the planet a better place. (The Great Energy Challenge addressed these issues at a live event in Tokyo, Japan, in October 2014. See content from our previous event, held earlier in 2014 in Istanbul: "Powering Our Urban Future: Spotlight on Turkey," and video of the participants discussing sustainable cities.)

In your view, what is the most important thing we can do to make cities more livable and sustainable in their use of energy? Rate the ideas and comment below with your own.

  • OPTION 1

    Improve mass transit

    Around the world, urban commuters spend hours each year stuck in traffic congestion, burning through gasoline just idling in road jams. Use of public transit is increasing in some places, but not at the pace most experts say is needed. Roadway occupancy levels could increase sixfold in some countries, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Would better mass transit systems get more commuters off the road?

  • OPTION 2

    Make buildings more efficient

    In the developed world, fully 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from heating, cooling, and powering buildings. Many countries have embarked on major efforts to better insulate buildings and install more modern and efficient heating and ventilation equipment. Energy savings could reach 30 percent or more. Should cities invest in major weatherization and energy upgrade efforts?

  • OPTION 3

    Preservation of historic and natural assets

    Part of what makes each city unique is its architecture. Preserving buildings, and the history and culture they embody, is often difficult for cities as they face the pressure of growing population and changing economic demands. Natural assets, like waterways, parkland, and wetlands, also are a key factor in making cities livable. How important is it to integrate preservation into city planning?

  • OPTION 4

    Boost clean energy

    The electricity plants that power the world's cities are often out of sight and out of mind. But some municipalities are taking steps to reduce their reliance on power transmitted from distant generating stations. Cities are integrating solar energy onto rooftops, capturing and recycling waste heat, and purchasing wind power. Switching from coal to natural gas also can cut carbon emissions and other pollutants.

  • OPTION 5

    Upgrade power infrastructure

    As New York City learned during Hurricane Sandy, aging energy delivery systems in many cities need to be upgraded to handle increased weather and flooding risks as well as growing population. Cities will need smarter and more resilient electricity and fuel delivery systems to provide basic human services, and for communities to grow and thrive into the next century.

16 comments
Tom Radecki
Tom Radecki

Any redesign needs to incorporate zero fossil fuels, and realize that most vehicles will be driving themselves within a decade or so.  This changes the design of any mass transit dramatically. For instance, the drawback of small mass transit vehicle is the #1 cost factor, i.e., the wage of the driver, who will soon not be needed. The advantage of small mass transit vehicles is that they can carry a small number of passengers more quickly and directly from homes to their destinations. 


Self-driving vehicles won't need as much parking, since they will usually quickly drive away to their next assignment. Also, the vast majority of vehicles will be running on electricity thanks to the very rapid improvements in battery technology, e.g., the titanium dioxide nanotube anode for the lithium ion battery, and the ability of electric vehicles to be powered totally by carbon free fuels, i.e., sun, wind, hydro, nuclear, etc. Electricity is a much better vehicle fuel since 90% of the energy moves the vehicle vs 20-25% for gasoline or diesel. With self driving vehicles, many fewer vehicles will be needed. Cities will be much healthier without fossil fumes and can be much more compact without so much parking. 


Residential and commercial buildings need to be built or modified with the assumption that they will be all electric, i.e., no gas or oil furnaces or hot water heaters or stoves. Gas stoves are unhealthy anyway. Air heat exchangers appear best for most applications. 


With the new low cost of renewable energy and the absolute need for the world to go fossil free ASAP, we need to start now.  There is no reason why each of us can't be fossil free within a several years.  Fossil fuels should be banned as of 2040 for all purposes.  Renewables are or will be just as cheap for almost all purposes.  Air travel may require fuels made by algae or something and may cost significantly more, but we can live without air travel.  


Most plants, animals, and humans will not be able to live with where we are rapidly going with global warming gases.  We need to incentivize the transition with a stiff carbon tax that is refunded to people in ways that current approximate the current fossil fuel usage for people in their socio-economic bracket. 

Devany D. Steeple
Devany D. Steeple

I agree with Warren Karlenzig, we need to work on "systems approaches that enable multiple solutions in concert." One products waste is another products resource! We also need to work on educating people so there is no question about where resources come from, how they are used, and disposed of and how every choice we make has an impact on us all.  

daed lanth
daed lanth

Cities are constantly being repaired, renovated, & ripped down to make way for the new. Integrating improved structural designs with carefully planned green space can improve city life dramatically. A focus on building technology is my biggest concern with transportation infrastructure taking a close second; intelligently designed structures include close access to basic needs which reduces the transportation burden overall. 

RETTAVAYAL KRISHNASWAMY
RETTAVAYAL KRISHNASWAMY

 Sorry, I disagree. For all the problems related to the Earth,  urbanization is the only reason. The rural people use less energy, use bicycles, and most often in the open. There offices require no AC machines as they work in open paddy fields. Still millions use bulls, horses,camels and  donkeys for transporting men and materials. At their homes too they stay outside during the day carrying out farm related work and hence spend no energy. They go to bed early and hence don't burn the midnight oil. Their food items are simple and with less variety and hence again require less energy for cooking. Pl.visit my blog for related articles taken from various sources. 


http://gogreenindia-krish.blogspot.in/


Rettavayal S krishnaswamy

Parth Mamtora
Parth Mamtora

The small townships are the key to sustainable development. No country will become 100% clean and big cities are always going to cause pollution. It takes 2-3 hours to move from one place to another in big cities whereas in townships it just takes few minutes. Green belts must be planted in places like road dividers. 

Piezoelectricity concept strikes me a lot. It means that applying pressure on quartz generates electricity. If all our roads and footpaths are equipped with quartz then the pressure from heavy trucks and cars will generate lot of electricity which can be used in street lights and also supplied to nearby shops and Households. This is completely eco-friendly.

Russ Katt
Russ Katt

Just less sprawl,and  life style changes need to happen first an easy win for the environment, maybe if we ever find an energy source that does not kill the environment should we be allowed to become as wasteful as we are now.  

Rahul Desai
Rahul Desai

These is my list of possible things:

1.  Allow gas to take over coal power plants in the city (for baseload): 

We are now entering the era in which cheap gas is going to replace coal.  So the Co2 emission is anyways going to reduce as gas power plants increase their output in the developed countries such as USA and UK where the electricity demand is not growing as fast as it is in the developed part of the world.  Gas power plants could be located in the city and they require less space compared to typical coal power plants


2. Improve Energy Efficiency Law for cities:

Many countries have banned incandescent electric lights/bulbs and people are forced to use CFL lamps.  We need much stronger law for other appliances as well.  The energy star ratting is used as an indicative but people still buy the cheapest product not the most efficient.


3. Introduce Electric Vehicles:

Renewable energy sources (Wind and Solar) are not very reliable and could not be used to supply the baseload.  Supplying the grid through these sources is often hit and miss and hence we need storage options and then use for stored electricity.  Electric cars can store energy from these resources and displace the Co2 emissions.


4. Displace Working Hours:

The national grid is interconnected and many power plants supply more than one city's needs.  The peak demand of the power system could be easily reduced by making once city's core working hours different from other.  Say City 1 has core working hours of 7PM - 4 PM and in city 2 has core hours of 10 PM - 6 PM.  Yes the cities can then take turns to have early or late shift!


Please connect with me on twitter: @desairahul

Taher kalyanwalla
Taher kalyanwalla

by having solar street light.. using CFL lamps and bulbs..  

Sarika Siraj
Sarika Siraj

Re-thinking the building facades... If all the tall buildings had a green mesh of plants in their facades, the city would act kind of like a jungle and all the environmental problems would reduce at least 50% I think...

Roiikka-Ta P Globetrotter
Roiikka-Ta P Globetrotter

the question is not how we can make cities sustainable, but, if we should in the first place . . .

Mariana Inchausti
Mariana Inchausti

I live in the city pictured!!!! its not as modern as it looks but very pretty. Panama city, Panama

Roman Longginou
Roman Longginou

Plant trees on the top of buildings. it would be like a forest canopy over the city... 

Don Bhuvan
Don Bhuvan

Step 1- Plan with environmental concerns

Step 2- stop being greedy

Step-3 don't be corrupt morons, think of your children.

Step-4 Update archaic environmental, zoning and other laws, even my granny doesn't remember the last time this happened

Step 5- enable governmental agencies with strong oversight power.

Step 6- harsher penalties.

Step 7- foster a sense of collective ownership and help develop environmental conscience among people.


Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig

It's not a single action that will make cities more sustainable as I describe in my TEDx talk http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpRD8Uet4Ss It's systems approaches that enable multiple solutions in concert--transportation that runs on locally produced renewable energy; buildings that reduce urban heat impact, grow food and collect and filter rainwater for reuse; PV solar that keeps producing energy for drinking water and wastewater treatment when storms like Sandy hit. 

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