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Urban Transformation: Is it sustainable?

The coming together of people in a city drives industry growth, creating jobs and reducing poverty. But there can be a dark side: sprawling slums, energy hogs and the production of 70 percent of green house gas emissions.
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By Mary Meehan, Panoramix Global

(This part 2 in a series on urbanization. Read part 1)

Demographic shifts, globalization, and migration are already massively altering the very building blocks of global culture. Urban centers are poised to be the center of radical growth and change over the next 100 years as billions of people take up residence. Will this transformation evolve into a planetary threat or become a call for innovation and renewal? The hard choices made now by citizens, private sector and policy makers will tell the tale.

Sustainability
Urbanization is a necessary fact of life. The coming together of people in a city drives industry growth, creating jobs and reducing poverty. But there can be a dark side: sprawling slums, energy hogs and the production of 70% of green house gas emissions. However, the World Bank suggests that urban growth can be a positive force if used as an opportunity to build an energy efficient metropolis with a population that actively aids in reducing pollution. Population support and a dedicated infrastructure is critical to the sustainability of urban transformation.

Food
Food shortages and price hikes are the result of an imbalance in the agricultural world. The planet produces enough food to feed everyone but currently the supplies become fuel and feed for livestock rather than for people. As the population increases the amount of agricultural land shrinks even further, but urban farming is gaining in popularity and support to localize production and create jobs. Another alternative is vertical farming; the basic principle is like stacking greenhouses on top of one another with multiple layers of crops. Dickson Desponnier has been promoting this philosophy that utilizes closed loop agriculture technologies—all the water, nutrients are all recycled—only the food leaves the vertical farm. So we farm where we live, reducing the transportation costs and associated carbon fuels–conserving by condensing.

Waste
Even in the best of times disposing of what we don’t want or can’t use can be a challenge. Population growth and consumption patterns are the two factors for determining the amount of waste generated. Add to this equation more and more complex products that are disposed of—new and personalized medicines, e-waste, illegal waste — and now nano-waste which concerns the disposal of nano materials present consumer goods, electronic components, industrial materials and more. These emerging materials that are increasingly part of our physical world are set to become another new disposal challenge.

Waste Management World states that though “there are appropriate waste management solutions, the main problem is the global framework that should put them in place where they are most needed.” In the meantime, the discarded garbage often travels around the world in search of a resting or recycling place.

Water
Over 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water and over 2 billion live without adequate sanitation. The Water Research Foundation reports the lack of this vital resource leads to the deaths of 5 million people, mostly children, each year from preventable waterborne disease. Water scarcity and water stress—when demand exceeds supply–are already a global phenomenon and with the effects of environmental change and the demands of growing population water is slated to become the new oil. Water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century, according to Kirsty Jenkinson of the World Resources Institute, making the need for safe water solutions even more critical.

Green infrastructure, energy efficiency, and agricultural success are corner stones of urban sustainability. Private and public partnerships are starting to arise and present opportunities waiting for shrewd investment, smart entrepreneurs and financiers, and forward-thinking innovative marketers.

Mary Meehan is cofounder of Minneapolis-based Panoramix Global

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Urban Transformation: Planetary Threat or Global Opportunity?

Demographic shifts, globalization, and migration are already massively altering the very building blocks of global culture. Urban centers are poised to be the center of radical growth and change over the next 100 years as billions of people take up residence. Will this transformation evolve into a planetary threat or become a call for innovation and renewal?