As the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, the world remains trapped in multiple emergencies, most notably climate change, nature loss, economic recession, conflict and violence. At present, the whole Europe and even the world are shrouded in the shadow of war. The world is facing the double severe challenges of traditional security and non-traditional security.
Great changes are taking place in the world, uncertainty is increasing. The UN Secretary-General Guterres said, “Let’s be clear: human activities are at the root of our descent towards chaos.”
Meanwhile, we are in an era of unprecedentedly rapid and irreversible urbanization. According to the World Cities Reports 2020 by UN-Habitat: in 2020, 56% of the world’s population lived in cities, reaching 4 billion; it is estimated that by 2030, 60% of the world’s population, 5 billion people will live in cities. It is predicated by UN DESA that by 2050, 68% of the world’s population, i.e. 7 billion people, will live in cities, with nearly 90% of the urbanization growth coming from Asia and Africa. China's urbanization rate was 64.7% in 2021, and it is expected to reach 75% to 80% in the future.
On an urban planet, Cities are not only the source of resource consumption, pollution, emission and ecological degradation, but also the main battlefield to resolve the above-mentioned crises and achieve a sustainable, resilient, prosperous and better future. In my opinion, the following six trends will be seen in the development of cities in the post-pandemic era: Decouplization (or “Decoupling”), Decarbonization, Decentralization, Digitalization, Equalization and Glocalization. These six interrelated trends represent the transformation and development direction of world cities in the future. We should attach great importance to them and adopt corresponding policies and methods, so as to adapt to the current stream, seize opportunities, rise to challenges and achieve SDGs as well as New Urban Agenda.
The first trend is Decouplization, which means to decouple urban development from resource consumption, and build circular metabolic cities.
Cities consume three-quarters of the world’s resources. The growing population and consumption would only be satisfied by three earths’ natural resources. Modern cities often follow the one-way mode with an inflow of resources and an outflow of waste. Household waste keeps mounting while precious resources such as energy, raw materials, nutrition, water are utilized inefficiently, which leads to cities being sieged by garbage, environmental pollution, resource depletion, soil degradation, rising commodity prices and ecosystem damage. At the same time, construction land expansion has outpaced population growth. As a result, farmland, forests, wetlands, coastlines and wildlife habitats have been overly encroached on, and the risk of pandemics has increased, because 75% of the new human infectious diseases are zoonotic. Therefore, decouplization is the fundamental way to improve urban safety, health and resilience, alleviate conflicts and realize harmony between man and nature, thus to build nature-positive cities that is one of the most cost-effective and efficient approaches to implement the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, and to build a greener urban future for all.
In the coming decades, we need to decouple the development and prosperity of urban economy from the increasing consumption of resources. By redesigning urban infrastructure, developing circular economy and organic agriculture, and implementing sustainable consumption and production, we can make resources flow in a closed loop within the city or between the city and the countryside, with the recycling of materials, nutrition and energy. Meanwhile, we should strengthen sustainable spatial planning and land use, promote compactness, polycentrism, contiguity and walkability of urban development, contain urban sprawl, and create eco-friendly cities.
The second trend is Decarbonization, that is, reducing urban carbon emissions, achieving carbon neutral and net zero carbon cities around 2050.
Reports of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC released last August indicates that it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades. According to World Meteorological Organization, 2021 became the 7th consecutive warmest year on record.
2021 is the year of global action for carbon neutrality. Cities consume about 70% of global energy and account for about 70% GHG emissions of the world. Therefore, comprehensive urban decarbonization will be the top priority for carbon neutrality at local, national, regional and global level. 700+ cities in more than 50 countries have committed to reach net zero by 2050.
Specific measures include: reducing energy consumption; improving energy efficiency; vigorously building renewable energy system for an equitable transformation to renewable energy; promoting green and zero energy buildings; developing green mobility; encouraging a green lifestyle and a more vegetarian diet; implementing carbon tax, boosting carbon finance and low-carbon economy; and enhancing carbon sequestration through afforestation.
The third trend is Decentralization, namely, building self-sufficient cities with distributed infrastructure and a network-based economic model.
An interconnected network, just like the organic system of a bee swarm, a fish school or a neural network, is characterized by self-organization, adaptability, evolvability and strong resilience.
Green and sustainable cities should also be an organic cluster system with a distributed model, featuring greater adaptability and resilience, where resources are provided and waste is disposed of locally, and consumers are also producers. For example, buildings connected by smart grids become power stations; feces and kitchen waste are composted in the community, biogas is used for cooking, and biogas residues are used as organic fertilizer; sewage is treated nearby in the community or industrial park, water and sludge are recycled; urban agriculture flourishes inside and outside buildings, including family balconies.
Urban spatial structures are changing from one single center to multiple centers. Megacities are connecting with surrounding cities to form a network of city clusters. Traditional large municipal parks are turning into pocket parks. More green space is available within walking distance. Community medical care will be strengthened to treat fever patients at an early stage. Large shopping malls will be replaced by more convenience stores and online shopping malls. Huge office space in traditional CBDs will be taken place by more diversified and scattered one. Working from home as well as commercial and residential integration will become more and more popular; blockchain technology will also facilitate economic and social decentralization, thus people will no longer need a “trusted” third party for regulation.
The fourth trend is Digitalization, that is, developing smart cities with intelligent city operation and management.
Kevin Kelly, an American writer of new economy, said that atom was the icon of the 20th century, while the Internet is that of the 21st century. 2021 is also called the first year of the metaverse. Digital technology is profoundly reshaping urban planning, development, operation and management, and improving resource utilization and operation efficiency, which can be exemplified by: intelligent space planning based on the 3S technology (RS, GIS, GPS); intelligent construction and project management based on the BIM technology and industrialized manufacturing; smart community and smart home services based on the Internet and the IoT technology; e-commerce that’s becoming the mainstream; increasingly mature self-driving technology, intelligent water utilities and smart grids; and robots that’s replacing human labor.
Digital technology has played an important role in the prevention and control of COVID-19, such as automatic temperature monitoring, health code management and virus transmission chain tracking. Also, online shopping (including buying vegetables online), online education, online medical care, telecommuting and virtual conferences are all flourishing with huge potential.
However, how can takeout waste be reduced? How can privacy be protected? How can teenagers get rid of the addiction of video game and smartphone? How can necessary outdoor activities be ensured for the sake of people’s health and neighborhood vitality? How can AI be kept under control? All these are the new challenges that the digital economy is imposing on us.
The fifth trend is Equalization, which refers to right to the city for all without discrimination of any kind to make cities equitable and inclusive.
Equity and Inclusiveness is key characteristics for future cities and is main goal in both 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and New Urban Agenda.
2030 Sustainable Development Agenda emphasize that leave no one behind. SDG 11 indicates to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. The word “Inclusive” comes first.
New Urban Agenda stresses: We share a vision of cities for all, referring to the equal use and enjoyment of cities and human settlements, seeking to promote inclusivity and ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are able to inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements to foster prosperity and quality of life for all.
The lasting 3 years pandemic has exacerbated urban inequality, such as the disparities in vaccination, hunger and more unemployment of low-income people. Natural disasters such as climate change, conflict and war, inflation and economic recession have also worsened the lives of the urban poor. No matter in developed countries or developing countries, inequality is the critical challenge in cities.
Equalization is firstly reflected in urban space, housing and public services, that is to say adequate housing, accessible and affordable public services for all, including water and sanitation, public transport, public space, and telecommunication network infrastructure, etc.; Everyone has equitable opportunities in education, health care, employment and development; Governance mechanism can effectively control and narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, and cultivate a society dominated by the middle class; Ensure gender equality in marriage, family, workplace and decision making; Care for vulnerable groups, municipal infrastructure and social services are friendly for vulnerable groups, and so on.
The sixth trend is Glocalization, which refers to the integration of universality and personality to develop cities of identity.
The pros and cons of globalization have always been the focus of debate around the world. The best practice is to localize it, making use of its advantages and avoiding its disadvantages according to the local condition and culture. However, many cities become homogeneous as a result of complete duplications. We must be confident enough to create a unique style rooted in the local culture so as to build a city that’s distinctive in both the spirit and the city scape. “Identity” is one of the six basic principles of the International Green Model City Initiative and its Standards. A city without identity is unappealing to talents, and those who abandon their local culture can hardly find their ego and happiness.
Indigenous people around the world have many clever ways that have stood the test of history to live in harmony with nature, such as grow food and build architectures. The UN Secretary-General Guterres stressed that “indigenous knowledge, distilled over millennia of close and direct contact with nature, can help to point the way.”
Before the 1980s, traditional circular economy in China’s rural areas was very successful. For example, the Mulberry-dyke & Fish-pond model in the Pearl River Delta fully recycled nutrients without any waste to produce safe and tasty food. In terms of traditional architecture, Zhuge Village in Lanxi city, Zhejiang Province, China, enjoys geographical advantages and preserves rows of ancient buildings intact since the Ming Dynasty. With about 600 years of history, the buildings can still be used for farming, teaching, living and working. In contrast, modern reinforced concrete buildings usually have a depreciation life of just about 60 years. The average duration of contemporary Chinese architecture is only about 30 years. These issues are worth pondering.
These above 6 trends are often intertwined with and influenced to each other. Decouplization benefits decarbonization, which must be done first. Decentralization and digitalization are effective paths for decouplization and decarbonization. Decentralization is also conducive to equalization in a way. Glocalization has good implications for decouplization, decarbonization and decentralization. However, without equalization, other trends are meaningless, and our city will have no future.
The above six trends of urban transformation and development reflect the logic and rules of nature. The way of nature, seemingly common, is actually profound. These six trends can be found in the standards of IGMC Initiative, which advocates that “Green cities resemble trees”, inspired by the nature. Because trees are characterized by photosynthesis, circulation, self-sufficiency, carbon fixation, oxygen release, shade microclimate, balanced networks of leaf veins as well as fair and efficient nutrient distribution to each part—all these are worth learning for cities. Nature is always our best teacher.
We need to study the logic of nature and conform to these six trends of urban development in the post-pandemic era, rethink, re-evaluate, re-design and reshape our cities, in line with strategies, methodologies and indicators of 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, New Urban Agenda, Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 and IGMC Standards, to accelerate green transformation and innovation for building safe, resilient, carbon-neutral and sustainable cities and human settlements for all, to open a new prosperous green urban era for the future.
About International Green Model City
Launched by the Global Forum on Human Settlements, in collaboration with UNEP and related international organizations as well as governments in 2011 at UN headquarters, the International Green Model City Initiative is a partnership initiative of Sustainable Development Goal 11 and New Urban Agenda, based on the principles of “safety, sustainability, equity, identity, prosperity and happiness”, and is a global action plan for building “zero waste and zero emission” oriented green cities. At present, 41 well known cities and businesses in the world have joined the Initiative, forming a network for exchanges, sharing, interaction and cooperation.
By Lyu Haifeng, Secretary-General of Global Forum on Human Settlements
Contact: [email protected]