Sustainability and Urbanization

70 million people move into cities each year

If you missed Part I of this post, check it out. Then add your voice to the conversation. I was asked by a colleague at a Fortune 500 company to give my thoughts on the hottest questions in sustainability — those that are generating the most provocative discussions. These are what I gave him and each will become the subject of a longer future post in which I’ll share my version of the answer.

My lens on sustainability is colored by urbanization, another of what I call Pillar Trends: long-term, global trends that will effect all of us and of which no individual or single organization or government can alone change the trend line. It’s cope (and find the opportunities)…or endure the consequences.

This dual perspective is reflected in questions #4 – 7 in my hot questions. They’ll also be part of Sustainable Cities: Smarter, Greener, and More Competitive, an Executive Council Sustainability Leadership Forum on June 8 for which I am serving as consulting editorial director.

4)      Are cities the “great green hope” for a sustainable planet? Urban areas are typically thought of as crowded, noisy, and dirty – a far cry from the bucolic country scenes associated with organic farms, fresh air, and gently flowing streams. More than half of the world now lives in urban areas. Almost 75% of energy is consumed there and, in the developed world, about 80% of economic wealth is created in cities. Buildings consume a greater percentage of our total energy use than transportation. But are there environmental benefits to the urban density of population and activity? Should the desire to reduce environmental impact drive an acceleration of global urbanization? What are the downsides to increased urbanization?

5)      Which metrics matter? From Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index to Newsweek’s Green Ratings, the race is on to create the metrics by which corporations will be measured and public perceptions shaped. What are the agendas of the various parties bringing new “sustainability rulers” to the fore? How will business leaders and the consuming public be able to discern which measures matter most – and which are simply gimmicks or clever public relations?

6)      What is the right public-private balance for creating the sustainable city? Free market enthusiasts will argue that we will best optimize the “greenness” our cities through the rough-and-tumble of interactions between buyers and sellers. The sustainability ideas, products, and services that rise to the top will be those that the public most wants and is willing to pay for. Others will counter that a broader vision is needed – that only with greater planning, more stringent standards, and greater public sector involvement can next-generation advancements find their way into the mainstream. A systems challenge, they say, can’t be solved with a component-based approach. Would the green building movement have grown so dramatically without LEEDS certification standards? Even some regulators, however, argue that a top down approach is inappropriate for the challenges we face.

7)      Must the developing world go brown before it goes green? Developing nations argue that they are entitled to their period of “dirty” growth so that they can raise the living standards of their people at a cost they can afford. To hold them to the environmental standards of the developed world would be unfair and hypocritical. This position has been a major point of contention at every global negotiation on environmental protection. Is this right – or is the world missing a major opportunity to meet climate change challenges by not undertaking a green Marshall Plan to bring the latest technology, materials, and insights to these developing population centers? After all, the most populous cities in 2020 will largely be in the developing world.

What are your thoughts?

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