Future Proofing Cities

Written by Elena Collins on 14 December 2012

A major new report ‘Future Proofing Cities’ was recently published by Atkins, in a unique partnership with the Department for International Development (DFID) and University College London (UCL). The report assesses the risks to cities from climate hazards, resource scarcities, and damage to ecosystems and how they can act now to future proof themselves. Covering 129 cities totaling 350 million people in 20 countries, the report identifies practical measures that cities can take to manage these future risks.

Around 75% of the world’s population will live in cities within 40 years. Almost all of this population growth will happen in the developing world, with 4.6 billion people projected to live in already rapidly growing cities. How will these cities in the developing world cope socially, environmentally and economically? Elena Collins met with Nick Godfrey, one of the principal writers of the Future Proofing Report, to discuss the urgent issues arising from rapid urbanisation.

How did you start your research for the report?

We identified four significant gaps in the global thinking around the challenges facing cities in developing countries. Firstly, there is an absence of studies which look in an integrated way at the full set of environmental risks facing cities. Many reports look at one element such as flooding but often do not look at a wider set of risks such as carbon emissions and resource scarcities in energy, water, and food. Second, inadequate attention is given to cities in fast growing developing countries. Third, many reports tend to focus on problems rather than looking at integrated solutions. There are opportunities in the built environment to not only reduce carbon emissions and energy use but also to design buildings in ways which minimizes the impact on land and ecosystems whilst reducing the impact of climate hazards. Fourth, greater attention is needed on how solutions can create social and economic benefits as well as environmental ones. 

What is the biggest pressure for cities in developing countries? Is it economic, social, political or environmental?

They are all linked and it’s important to look at all of those elements.  Unless cities respond to the environmental risks that they face they will ultimately damage their economic and social prosperity. For example, if Delhi were to implement steps to reduce carbon emissions, a recent study suggests that this could save over 12,000 lives per annum by 2030 due to the health related benefits of reduced congestion and air pollution. If Delhi was to make greater use of sustainable transport systems, this could create jobs, improve productivity, and reduce congestion. They are all interlinked.

The report mentions that many cities have degree of autonomy, which allows city policymakers to act more nimbly than national policymakers in delivering integrated responses to risks. Can you give an example of a city that has achieved something independently from the government?

The report showcases some cities that have taken action. For example, in Bangalore measures have taken to reduce congestion by implementing a new metro system. Cities are acting, and it is important to recognise that they can often act quicker than national policy makers. The key is to provide additional support to those cities. National and regional government support will be fundamental. It’s about having a partnership approach. 

Are multinational companies paying further attention to the risks to their investments in the cities?

The report looks at 129 cities in 20 countries and divided them into 5 urban types. One of the biggest urban types is cities facing multiple risks in terms of carbon emissions, significant energy use, risks to water and food security and climate risks. If you look at that as a significant sample of the world's cities, there are many multinational companies which are investing in urban infrastructure such as transport, water and energy systems. Hurricane Sandy demonstrated that cyclones and flooding can have damaging consequences to energy systems. Multinational companies need to be aware of these risks and to think about their impact on the performance of their assets. It’s about risk management and there is an opportunity for multinational and national companies to invest in new products and technology to protect cities.

What could a developing city learn from New York and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy?

The lessons are twofold. Firstly, is to be aware of the risks you face and to put in place infrastructure that can improve your resilience to risks. Risks from climate change will intensify over time so it is important to act. Secondly, every city is different and each one will need a bespoke assessment of the risks, vulnerability and their capacity to respond. Only when there is a detailed analysis, will cities be able to identify which inventions are going to be most applicable. It is also about thinking more long term and potentially radically. For example, some cities may have to make difficult choices such as considering diversifying economic activity away from areas in a city which are at risk to flooding.

What are the main recommendations for the report?

The report is a call to action. We have recommended several areas for action. Firstly, it is about helping cities to develop future proofed urban strategies, looking at an integrated way at the risks that cities face. Secondly, it’s about making finance more easily available for cities for future proofing. Furthermore, undertaking urban risk diagnostics is important so that cities can better understand the different risks they face long term and short term.

There is a big gap in improving data and evidence. We relied on a mixture of geo-spatial data from Colombia University and international sources from United Nations and World Bank. There are significant gaps in that data and we had to generate a lot of data ourselves. We are calling for agencies that collect data on cities to do more. We are also calling on multinational companies to put even more focus on understanding the risks to their investments.

What are the next steps for the report?

Atkins is one of the largest infrastructure and design firms in the world. We are committed to taking forward the findings of the report and to help authorities develop future proofed urban strategies. Responding to this report needs an integrated, multi disciplinary, multi-skilled approach. It requires pooling skills from across different types of professionals. We need to work to bring city stakeholders together to develop common visions of the future, which balance economic, social and environmental issues over the long term. It is about partnership and collaboration.

Click here to watch the video about the report.

Categories: Environment, People, Living, Risk, Technology