Other people's business

RSS

The solution is compact cities

The problem is prosperity.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

The world’s population is expanding rapidly.  Whilst we in Europe have been trapped by the economic crisis, the likes of Brazil, India and China have found room to manoeuvre, adapting and continuing to grow at phenomenal rates. 

By 2050 there will be 9.3bn people living, breathing and consuming our planet’s resources, with 75 per cent of these living in cities.  To accommodate this we would need to build the equivalent of more than one new Birmingham every single week for the next 40 years.

The successful cities of the future will be more compact and efficient.  But to realise this future, we need to overcome the paradoxes created by prosperity and connectivity.

The stark fact is that unless we make our cities more efficient and sustainable, the quality of life of most people everywhere in the world will suffer.   Rapidly urbanising populations are a feature of emerging economies, but the new middle classes in the likes of the BRICS also expect their quality of life to keep growing. 

City development has relied on continuing low energy costs.  But population growth, consumer demand and supply reaching nature’s limits are putting pressures also on rising energy costs, and together these present a massive threat to people’s quality of life. This is the Prosperity Paradox.

If we don’t find solutions to this paradox, the world could face a major crisis. 

So we need to encourage and plan for more compact cities.  These will see people living closer to their place of work and commuting less, travelling more on public transport and less in cars.  Urbanisation has seen fragmentation of communities, but in the compact city your neighbours and friends will be nearer to you, and where you shop, work and play will be closer to where you sleep. That will save energy, reducing per capita spend and therefore keeping disposable incomes up. 

Politicians alone can’t deliver the compact cities we need.  In an interconnected world, we need governments incentivising smart growth; communities moderating their short-term demands for goods for the benefit of their friends and neighbours in the long-term; business offering smarter, more integrated solutions that work in the long-term rather than just responding to the short-term demands of their shareholders. 

Overcoming this Connectivity Paradox requires good story-telling.  Politicians need to be more honest with voters about the short and long-term trade-offs of decisions; communities need to discuss and plan for their own future needs; businesses need to articulate a vision to shareholders that realises long-term value as well as short-term gain.

The responsibility doesn’t just fall on our politicians, our community or our business leaders.  It falls to each and every one of us, individually and collectively.

Jeremy Bentham is Head of Scenarios at Shell.