Scripta Varia

THE NEW DESIGN CONDITION: Planetary Urbanism + Resource Scarcity + Climate Change

John Trelawney Hoal, Ph.D., AICP, RA(SA)[1]

Note: This discussion paper is context and a framework for the presentation of the case study of how to save the Mississippi River Delta from irreversible destruction and the City of New Orleans from extreme vulnerability.

Introduction: The New Design Condition

It is the confluence of three human agency trends – planetary urbanism, resource scarcity and climate change – that will have a profound impact on the manner in which we occupy and relate to the planet and each other. This confluence is unparalleled in world history. We are entering unknown territory with little knowledge as to how these three trends will interact in complex, unpredictable and unprecedented ways. However, we do know that this confluence is upon us and it will continue to create a NEW DESIGN CONDITION to which we as a planetary community need to respond.

We also know that this new design condition has and will continue to accentuate the already intractable social, environmental and economic issues. Challenges such as inequity, poverty, public health, malnutrition, migration, inadequate housing, and natural resource and biodiversity loss and fragmentation will only be exacerbated as the full impact of the confluence of these three trends emerges. It is further understood that the current socio-economic paradigm for planetary living is not only unsustainable in its own right but cannot and does not adequately respond to this confluence of planetary urbanism, resource scarcity and climate change.

This discussion paper explores this confluence and suggests that cities as the primary habitat for humans today is the greatest driver of prosperity, creativity and innovation; consumption of materials and energy; producer of waste; polluter and destroyer of our natural capital; emitter of greenhouse gases, and fundamentally changes the climate, while remaining the place in which we define who we are as a community and a civilization. Since cities are the largest sites of human settlement today and are increasingly acting as critical nexus points of social, economic, ecological and technological change, it is critical cities be the focus of the challenge.

This is especially evident in the global south, where growth is most rapid, and where future sustainability challenges will be most severe – all this in the light of growing inequalities and poverty; the pervasiveness of slums and informality; governmental and societal inefficiency; and a lack of responsive planning and design. In the face of these challenges, it is critical we reconsider the planning and design of cities as the focus sustainability and resource generation. Cities are truly the greatest locus of the challenge and opportunity!

1.0 The Confluence of Planetary Urbanism + Resource Scarcity + Climate Change: Key Characteristics and Challenges

1.1 Planetary Urbanism

The first trend is planetary urbanism resulting from the projected global population increase from 7.3 billion in 2015 to 9.7 billion in 2050, and to between 9.5 and 13.3 billion in 2100, layered with the fact that the majority of people will continue to select cities as their preferred habitat for reasons of opportunity, work, survival and/or personal choice [1]. In fact, since 2007 the majority of the world’s population has been living in cities and over the past 20 years world urban population has grown by more than 60%. Today 54% of the world’s population live in cities and by 2050 it is projected that 70% of the 9.7 billion people in the world will be living in cites, that is 6.8 billion people. By 2100 it is projected that 84% of people, an approximate total of 9 billion or more people will live in cities representing more than a doubling of the number of people living in cities between now and the end of the century. However, it is not only the scale but the speed with which this is happening that will be challenging. It is understood that the world is growing at 83 million people per year and although not everyone will live in a city, together with the increasing rural to urban migration, the urban population growth implies four (4) metropolitan New York’s per year; or nine (9) Greater London’s per year; or nineteen (19) metropolitan Rome’s per year would need to be designed, constructed and serviced additionally every year for the next 35 years.

Globally urban growth is projected to comprise primarily of extensions to and rebuilding of existing cities rather than completely new cities. In terms of existing cities, growth will occur roughly equally in both large (one million plus) cities and in medium (below 0.5 – 1.0 million) sized cities [2]. The most impactful growth will occur in association with those existing cities that will emerge as dominant economic global megacities with 10 million or more inhabitants (research has shown that the larger urbanized regions have a bigger per capita ecological footprint). Today, there are 25 megacities and it is projected that in 2050 there will be 55 megacities and 85 in 2100 megacities – a 340% growth of megacities in the world over the next 80 years.

In addition, there will be the emergence of the multiple hyper-city regions with populations exceeding 20million plus inhabitants. The largest city today is Greater Tokyo of approximately 36 million people but within 80 years – one person’s lifetime – we will see the largest city-region projected to be Lagos, Nigeria of nearly 90 million people – over twice the size of Tokyo today. In perspective, only 15 countries today have populations larger than ninety (90) million people. So in the future the world will need to design, build, operate and service cities of sizes unprecedented for which there is little knowledge and expertise, and in many case these cities will be self-built.

This challenge is accentuated by the location and age differential of the population growth with Asia and Africa as the centers of population growth and urbanization, and Africa in particular having a very youthful and growing population. The most populated continent will remain as it is today, with Asia’s population growing from 4.3 billion in 2015 to 5.3 billion in 2050 and then decline slightly to 4.9 billion in 2100. India expected to become the largest country in population size, surpassing China around 2022. Europe is projected to lose population and the America’s will have modest growth. For cities by 2100 of the top largest cities fifteen (15) will be in Africa, nine (9) in Asia and one (1) New York in the USA. It is the Global South that will be home to nearly three-quarters of the world’s urban population and most of the world’s largest and fastest-growing cities [3].

The global south cities will see the majority of this unprecedented population growth dispersed over tens of thousands of urban areas. Africa, Asia and Latin America will be the home of approximately 90% of the added urban population and therefore the location of city-building. However, the key challenge for cities will be Africa which is currently the fastest urbanizing continent in the world with a 2.55% growth rate for the foreseeable future. Africa is expected to more than double its population by 2100. Africa’s population will increase from 1.2 billion in 2015 to 2.5 billion in 2050 to 4.4 billion in 2100 [4]. Africa currently accounts for 16% of the global population. The UN expects that proportion to rise to 25% in 2050 and 49% by 2100. As this relates to cities in Africa, Nigeria’s population could surpass the United States by 2050 and by 2100 contain the world’s largest city Lagos of 90million people. Thus, Africa with some of the world’s most important hotspots of biodiversity but with one of the most undeveloped economies and infrastructures; significant political fragmentation and exploitation; natural resource depletion and/or degradation; and high rates of poverty, illiteracy, and disease, will certainly be the most challenged continent’s to design, develop, manage and service ecologically responsible and humane cities.

However, planetary urbanism is not just the number, size, location and speed of cities driven by the number of people to be housed in cities, it also incorporates the understanding that not only will the majority of the world's population live in cities, but more importantly those that do not live in places defined as cities will be increasingly directly or indirectly involved in assuring the existence of or dependent upon the city. This implies that there is a physical network of various sizes of cities, towns and villages supported by separate functional zones of specific land uses such as agriculture, fishing, mining, industrial, conservation areas, wildness, etc. From the natural capital perspective planetary urbanism also implies that the ecological and biological resources and services needed for existence of the city (clean air, carbon-dioxide sequestration) are being drawn from increasingly further afield and cities are having an increasingly larger spatial and ecological footprint. This expanded footprint also occurs with and supported by a social and economic network of inter-relationships through people’s work, seasonal migratory patterns, disjointed locations of work and home, and family and community.

So as a totality, these complex and multi-layered functional and personal relationships have become increasingly disparate, loose, global and transitory within the city, between city and peripheries, and with other cities and their peripheries, as well as with the specialized land-use functional zones. This implies that planetary urbanism must be understood as an urban to wildness transect. Increasingly cities are dependent upon these highly specific functional zones for the supply of food, water, energy and air quality, all of which are increasingly further afield. An example is the emergence of the global agricultural trade. China with a quarter of the world’s population and only 9% of the arable land requires agricultural land and products from places within Africa like Mozambique which is using only 15% of its agricultural land. Another indicator of the impact of cities is their increasingly larger water footprint. Although urban areas cover 3% of the earth’s land surface their water footprint covers 41% and of the 100 largest cities in the world their watersheds cover over 12%. Thus, the impact of cities on global resources is increasing and will continue to increase most often with detrimental impacts on planetary natural resources and biodiversity conservation.

Finally, city building correlates with improved living standards for many but not all of its residents. Over recent history, city building has been used as a national, regional and local economic development strategy and one that was intended to alleviate poverty and provide humane living conditions for all. This has not necessarily been achieved. It has been the middle class and wealthy that has benefitted most from city building through rising incomes and greater levels of consumption. In parallel with the growth of cities the global middle class will increase from 1.8 billion to 4.9 billion people by 2050, an increase of 3 billion middle income people over the next 35 years [5]. The net impact for urbanization is that the city’s ecological, social and economic footprint exponentially increases as a result of the combination of urbanization and the rising middle income class due to the substantially increased consumption patterns per person. As an example, with the increased urban middle class there is typically a change of food diet. Projections suggest that food production will need to increase by 50% by 2030 and 100% more by 2050 to meet forecast demand. This will bring enormous demand stresses to the water and energy sectors, and a major competition between different land uses – between cities, agriculture (food), cropland (fuel and feed), natural resource conservation, and carbon sinks. Cities are already consuming some of the more productive agriculture lands and natural areas.

From an overall global perspective given the challenge of the size, number, speed and location of cities that need to be designed, developed, managed and serviced over the next 80 years to accommodate the projected increases in population and the growing middle class, together with the economic, ecological and social resources and governmental structures in said locations, results in my opinion in a condition that the “formal economy” will not be able to deliver the necessary urbanization at the needed pace to match the population growth. The implication will be people at the lower ends of the economic spectrum will self-build their communities and informal urbanism will be an essential element of many, if not all cities. Informal urbanism (known as slums) already exists and has existed in parallel to major cities for decades; however it is projected to become even a more significant component of urbanization in the future. Estimates suggest that 40% of the world’s urban expansion is taking place in slums. Informal urbanism is expected to increase from one billion people to two billion people by 2030 and will be increasingly associated with formal urbanism [6].

This intractable flow and pattern of formal and informal urbanism spatial, socially and economically coexisting is already well established in the Global South. Lagos, Nigeria; Accra, Ghana; Mexico City, Mexico; San Paulo, Brazil and Buenos Aries, Argentina are examples of a mature urbanization patterns that incorporate the both formal and informal urbanism to varied degrees of success. The challenge in this case is to decouple informal urbanism from poverty, inequity and a lack of opportunity, education, and basic services of sewer, water, waste, food and health and social services. We need to understand informal urbanism as a legitimate form of urbanism – as an emergent city in which communities and people themselves will have to be the agents of urbanization.

Thus, embedded in planetary urbanism as currently practiced are a set of uneven and unequal patterns of development and processes of inequity and social/environmental justice. Broadly, the current difference between the global north and global south will be accentuated with most of the cities being built in the global south in places that are challenged by degrading environmental resources, ineffective governmental structures and a lack of necessary skills, highest levels of poverty and insecurity between the various dimensions of human insecurity, such as food, tenure, water, shelter, and health; and with all the implications of the most vulnerable people living in the high risk areas of cities with the lowest level of services. This implies that this challenging trend of urbanization needs to be understood as an opportunity to completely re-think the very nature of how we plan cities today.

1.2 Resource Scarcity

The second of the two human agency trends is resource scarcity results from the here-to-now extraction, pollution and fragmentation of the world’s biological resources and ecological systems; the current consumption patterns of the middle income and wealthy, and the reliance on the free market to determine the planning and use of the world’s finite resources. In this regard, the world has already moved from an era of city-building in a resource abundant age to an era of city-building where resource scarcity is and will be increasingly a major constraint. Scarcity will not only mean some products are in short supply but many will become cost prohibitive and/or the availability will be significantly less predictable, all of which will exacerbate the current social and economic challenges, and further environmental degradation. As such, the building, rebuilding and operating, maintain and servicing the projected cities over the next 80 years for 9 billion people will be constrained by the available ecosystem services and natural resources especially in terms of biomass inclusive of materials, energy, oil, water, feed, and food.

Given the predominant global city morphology of urban sprawl accentuated by the growing middle class lifestyle with its increasingly higher average floor area per person and material consumption footprint results in urban land worldwide growing at a faster rate than population within cities [7]. Currently, cities occupy 3% of the world’s land surface and produce 50% of global waste and 60-80% of global carbon emissions while consuming 75-80% of natural resources. It is anticipated that with the consequences of the projected urbanization the land area overall for cities will triple by 2050 with the resultant negative impact on natural capital. This implies that urban land consumption rates worldwide are at least twice as fast as urban population, and in some places, three and four times faster [8]. As a result of this growing urbanization and middle income by 2050 without a substantive change in approach to resource utilization and the design of cities there would need to be a 70% increase in food production, 80% more energy, and 55% increase in clean water demand which would result an unprecedented and unsustainable demand on biological resources and ecosystems [9].

These projections are reflective of the current model of city planning and design – auto-centric sprawl and planning in a resource abundance era. To bring about global change in levels of urban consumption and waste output, and natural resource conservation, preservation and restoration there will need to be a required focus on cities and their design and development as it relates to density of inhabitants. The general assumption of this higher density is that cities have the opportunity to become less car dependency, generate lower emissions and reduce energy consumption by shifting mobility to walking, cycling and public transport; reducing trip distances through mix of uses; preserve the environment; and reduce the total number of trips through proximity while improving urban vitality and the high quality of life. Current, research has mixed results and has not necessarily fully supported all the anticipated environmental benefits. However I believe that much of the research indicates that compactness alone will not necessarily archive the full benefit unless it is matched with public policy, funding and investment. The UN has established a target of 15,000 inhabitants per sq. km for a resource efficient and sustainable city. Currently only 10-15 cities (urban areas) in the world reach the UN target in the overall so there is a tremendous opportunity to densify our cities without consuming additional land. For instance, Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh is the most densely populated urban area in the world with a density estimated at 44,000 per square kilometer. All of Dhaka's urban population of 15.4 million fits into a land area equal to that of the municipality of Portland with a population less than 600,000. Overall, the USA has the most number of larger cities (+2.5million) with the least dense areas.

In addition, today cities are typically planned, developed and maintained with a complete lack of sensitivity to the integration and consideration of biological variables, and as such biodiversity within the city is threatened by a vast array of anthropogenic factors. The form and character of urbanization as currently implemented homogenizes the biota as native ecosystems are replaced by pavements and buildings; the natural soil is covered with areas dominated by non-native ornamental species; and wetlands, forests and other peripheral ecosystems are removed, fragmented or invaded by non-native species. As a result urbanization produces some of the greatest local extinction rates and frequently eliminates the large majority of native species with the result that nonnative species invasions often arise related [10]. Finally, urbanization is often more lasting than other types of habitat loss [11]. However, clearly the opportunity exists and there is an essential need for city planning to be inclusive of habitat preservation, biodiversity and ecosystems services. The services provided by natural ecosystems to cities can be considered as follows: (1) provisioning services in their creation of oxygen, food, water, raw materials; (2) regulating services for carbon capture and sequestration, water management and waste water treatment, air purification, pollination, biological control; (3) supporting services by providing habitat for flora and fauna and maintaining genetic diversity and nutrient cycling; and (4) cultural services contributing to mental and physical health in human beings, recreation/tourism, spiritual benefits [12].

While there are uncertainties around the forecasts of urban population growth, there is even greater uncertainty about where and how much urban expansion will take place in different parts of the world over the next few decades. How the magnitudes of future urban expansion will vary across the world have important implications for biological productivity and biodiversity particularly in the global south. What is clear is that the current modes of city planning and design which facilitate the sprawling urban morphology and the increasing consumption footprint of the growing middle class is a primary factor in the utilization of land and has a negative impact on biodiversity. Thus one of the most significant challenges to biodiversity and natural resource preservation and conservation is the very form of the city itself as well as the urban residents consumption patterns not necessarily the number of people living in the city. It is increasingly essential to build ecological performative compact cities.

This becomes more important since of the 34 biodiversity hotspots in the world all contain some form of urban areas [13]. Examples include Berlin, Brussels, Cape Town, Chicago, Curitiba, Frankfurt, Kolkata, Mexico City, Montreal, Nagoya, New York City, Sao Paulo, and Singapore. Over 50% of the world's plant species and 42% of all terrestrial vertebrate species are endemic to these 34 biodiversity hotspots and most face extreme threats and have already lost 70% of their original natural vegetation [14]. Given the anticipated growth of existing cities to accommodate increased population these hotspots are particularly threatened in two ways by urbanization. First, the expansion of the city physical destroys and/or alters the habitat, biodiversity and biological resources of the area [15]. Second, with the expansion of cities the distance between protected areas and cities shrink further negatively impacting the biological resource and ecological functionality of resources adjacent to the city. This secondary negative impact is derived from biophysical changes associated with urban components and materiality such as impervious surfaces which modify energy and water partitioning and thus influence local and regional surface climates [16]. Built environments not only trap heat and influence local precipitation patterns but also degrade air quality by changing atmospheric chemistry [17].

This urban-biodiversity challenge can clearly be seen in numerous cities within these rich biodiversity hotspots and when the city form is of a morphology of sprawl as noted above. A great example of this is Cape Town, South Africa which is located in the Cape Floristic Region biodiversity hotspot. Cape Town which has 50% of South Africa's critically endangered vegetation types and approximately 3,000 indigenous vascular plant species increased its population by 3 million people over the last 75 years, a 490% growth rate. The population is expected to double before 2050 placing an increased pressure on these natural resources. Importantly, the spatial morphology of Cape Town has been a sprawling low-rise formal and informal urban form which has resulted in Cape Town having one of the lowest population densities of the largest 15 cities in Africa. It has also meant that the urban areas and the impact of urban life have expanded into some of the most sensitive habitats and biodiverse areas in Cape Town, hence the level of critical endangerment being currently registered.

Thus, with the project growth of the middle class and their increased consumption patterns simultaneously with the growth of cities often located in rich biodiverse regions there is a serious question as to whether the natural resources and ecosystems services provided can survive. Similarly, in terms of the ability of the world’s natural resources to provide the necessary ecosystems services it must be noted that the 2005 United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that 15 out of the 24 key ecosystems that human survival is dependent on were degraded and/or subject to unsustainable use. The consequence is that 1.3 billion people currently live in ecologically fragile environments, mostly in the global south. There is no doubt that resource scarcity and degraded ecosystem services will combine to bring about complex challenges in unique ways in different urban contexts. Cities need to be design, developed and managed/operated and maintained in “ways that they can lessen their pressure on the environment by being more self-sufficient”. Not only must cities include ecology and biodiversity within but they need to be designed to lessen their metabolic impact on the remainder of the resources of the earth i.e. retain, conserve and produce “biodiversity elsewhere”.

1.3 Climate Change

The third of the three human agency trends is climate change as the informing context for both planetary urbanism and resource scarcity. While we can dispute the degree to which the climate will change due to natural variability vs. human agency and the impact thereof, there is no denying that the climate is changing to a significant degree through human agency and this will continue to have tremendous impacts both locally and globally on cities and the biological resources and carrying capacity of the earth. Cities as the planet’s human habitat is and will be, the very focus and nexus of the human tragedy of climate change be it disasters, migration and/or social and economic instability and turmoil.

Currently, climate disasters are both the biggest financial liability and the most urgent public health risk facing the world. In the coming decades of rapid urbanization in an age of resource scarcity all cities will continue to experience intensified and unpredictable shocks and volatility of many kinds as a result of climate change including extreme weather, heat waves, heavy precipitation, intensified droughts, tropical storms, migration of people, flora and fauna, animals, etc. A particular challenge is the fact that climate change impacts are likely to be highly unpredictable, nonlinear, and noted by sudden shifts as key GHG thresholds are passed. These changes will impact the provision of food; water and energy availability; air quality; public health; poverty and inequity, disease potentiality; natural resource performance; and amplify risks posed by normal hazards, all of which will increase the difficulty of managing and servicing cities and point towards the critical importance of resilience as a fundamental design and planning parameter for cities. All of these risks and vulnerabilities present the greatest risk to poor people and countries which have the least capacity to cope with shocks or adapt to new realities.

This condition will be further accentuated due to the location of the major megacities. Typically, megacities cities with the highest concentrations of people are located at places of high vulnerability to climate change, in particular along the coast. There is a coevolution of urbanization and vulnerability and risk. These megacities cities are engines of economic growth and centers of innovation for the global economy and the hinterlands of their respective nations. The foundations of prosperity and prominence for most megacities lie in their long-standing commercial relationships with the rest of the world. To facilitate trade, most primary cities are located on or near the coast. They are also often located in low-lying areas near the mouths of major rivers, which served as conduits for commerce between interior agricultural and industrial regions and the rest of the world. As it happens, these locations place megacities at greater risk from current and projected climate hazards such as cyclones, high winds, flooding, coastal erosion and deposition, and sea-level rise [18]. This implies we will need to plan and design for environmental risks, including chronic and catastrophic forms of ‘natural disaster’ as part of the urbanization process [19].

To further compound the challenge the poorest and least empowered populations tend to be located in areas of highest vulnerability within these cities. Natural and climate change disasters are signifiers of the inequalities of the current socio-economic systems and requisite planning models, and by 2050 it is anticipated that 54% of the urban poor will live in cities. At this time approximately one billion people are living in informal settlements (will grow to 2 billion or more) many of which are located in highly exposed areas including coastal zones, floodplains and steep hillsides all with low-quality infrastructure and high degrees of poverty with no areas for retreat or ability to retreat to safety.

Urban disasters cannot be resolved with technical short-term repairs and solutions alone rather the nature of disaster risk is constantly being redefined as changes to urban landscapes and socio-economic characteristics emerge. Urbanization affects disasters just as profoundly as disasters can affect urbanization. There is a co-evolutionary pattern of changing human and environmental processes acting in and through the city. This emerging field of climate research explores what are called teleconnection patterns looking as the cascading effect of these disasters on humans, from the short-term interruption of the movement of goods to the long-term impact on public health. There is no simple one-way line of causality in the production of human or environmental conditions: ‘nature’ does not cause ‘natural disasters’; rather risk in the city is an outcome of a myriad of feedback loops and thresholds and competing ideas, mechanisms and forms. In this way, the breaching of a critical threshold – perhaps by a relatively minor initial event – can initiate a cascading series of knock-on effects with wide repercussions throughout the planetary urbanism system [20].

As of today 70% of cities are already dealing with the impacts of climate change and nearly all cites are to some degree at risk. Importantly, the manner in which cities are currently designed, built, managed, operated and serviced with their resulting use, consumption and production patterns and impacts, is a major contributing factor in climate change. It is well understood that cities further negatively impact climate in as much as they have their own micro-climate such as heat islands which impact large adjacent areas. Instrumental to climate change is the fact that already cities account for more than half of global greenhouse gas emissions and for about two-thirds of global energy use mostly due to their land-use structure and building practices. The transport sector accounts for 24% of total carbon dioxide emissions, of which 74% is from road transport which is projected to triple by 2050. This increase in transportation will occur in the fast growing cities of the global south and will have a tremendous impact on the air quality and public health of the growing population. The building sector contributes another 30% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, with 80-90% emitted during building use and 10-20% during construction. So there is a total of 55% of global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion resulting from the land-use/transportation relationship in the design, management and operation of the city. Industrial and other forms of production supporting the contemporary urban lifestyle in cities are responsible for 43% of the global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Although there are great differences between actual cities in terms of their carbon dioxide emissions, taken as an overall planetary condition of urbanization, the design, development and management of the city will be the site that generates the most GHG emissions and will be the focus’s climate change impacts and opportunities.

2.0 Urbanism is the Opportunity: Connected, Compact + Humane

It is clear that the confluence of planetary urbanism, resource scarcity and climate change are overlapping trends in time and space, and are integrally linked in a complex set of relationships that is yet to be fully understood. This confluence implies a NEW DESIGN CONDITION that is the unique condition of our era to which we need to respond. No longer is it possible to continue to plan, develop and operate the most important human habitat – cities – in the manner that we are doing today. No longer is it possible to build cities with the aspirational middle income urban lifestyle containing the levels of consumption while accommodating an additional 4 billion people in cities in the next 80 years. However, I do suggest that there is an opportunity in the very manner in which we respond to this need to build cities in an age of resource scarcity and climate change that can result in the conservation and regeneration of the planet’s biosphere and an improved quality of life for all people. I suggest that the greatest opportunity to deal with all the issues before us is through the design, development and management of the city.

The design of cities defined in its broadest sense (inclusive of physical design and management of built and natural systems, and the governance, societal and economic systems) is a key driver for the sustainability and survival of the biological resources, biodiversity and carrying capacity. Essential to the provision of the human habitat of planetary urbanism is the survival of the earth’s biological resources, biodiversity and ecological carrying capacity – and vice-versa – the earth’s biological resources, biodiversity and ecological carrying capacity will only survive if the design of cities fundamentally changes. No longer can nature and city be separate and distinct – they are completely interconnected and interdependent upon each other for survival. This requires a holistic integrated planetary strategy delivered at scale & high-performance!

For the most part, city-building practices as currently practiced are destructive to the planet’s ecological and biological resources, and do not respond to the predicted climate change implications, as well as being instruments of social, economic and environmental injustice. With the current paradigm there are and will continue to be winners and losers. In fact, this urban planning failure has been identified in the 2015 Global Risk Landscape Report by the World Economic Forum as a risk factor in creating social, environmental and health challenges. So, if the question remains can the world double the urban population over the next 80 years based upon our current paradigm of city-making together with all people achieving the idealized urban lifestyle, the answer in my opinion is negative. Moreover, there are now serious questions posed as to whether there is sufficient biological and natural resources to complete the needed urbanization given the population projections and today’s urban consumption patterns or are we at a break-point. In response, I suggest that there is a need for a new set of performance criteria for cities at both the local and global scale that is inclusive of the essential functionality, performance and conservation of the planet’s ecological systems, carrying capacity and biodiversity. The relationship between urbanization, climate change and biodiversity is multifaceted and complex, and is most likely a “wicked problem” so the definition of said performance criteria will be a continuous research and monitoring project. At the moment there is clearly insufficient knowledge of the adaptive systems interrelationship between cities and ecosystems.

Thus, with the confluence of these three trends there is an immediate need for a fundamental re-conceptualization, methodology and approach to the design of cities with an innovative approach to generating knowledge before, during and after the process of urbanization in an adaptive mode. Here I would like to suggest this is a design problem where design must be understood in its broadest sense. Instrumental is a complete rethinking of our understanding of city and nature. It is no longer possible to separate city and nature but rather we need to understand city and nature as a co-evolving socio-ecological metabolizing complex adaptive system with a multi-scalar layered networked of nodes (cities) of varied morphologies responsive to location, size, geography, climate, history and culture. We need to eschew all categories of traditional urban theory and research, in particular the ideas of the definitions of urban to suburban to rural, city to nature, city to metropolis/megacity and hybridize the clarity of these understood discrete and distinctive forms with an understanding of the continuous dynamic and adaptive flows and process of interdependent systems. This implies that we need new methods of analysis to fully understand the interrelationship of the morphology and metabolism of all the urban socio-eco systems and how they adapt to ever-changing climate conditions that comprise the context of planetary urbanization. It further implies that the methodology must be drive by a series of principles of this understanding of urbanism.

We need to change the design of cities from the destructive forms and flows of today and develop new understandings, forms and processes such that cities are a generative condition for the good of the environment and society – people and planet. To this end, a focus on the generative design principles of a connected metabolism supporting a compact urban morphology that affords a humane urbanism as a way of life is primary (see framework diagram below). In this way cities are designed with the eco-systems services and resource efficient approach by using a circular metabolism model. In this context, spatial planning plays a key role for the preservation of natural resources through promoting compact urban forms that are less resource intensive, protect agricultural land and preserving areas of ecological importance. Green infrastructure incorporated into the early stages of planning can restore and/or preserve the ecosystems in and around cities that provide many natural services cities depend upon by safeguarding biodiversity hotspots and improving landscape connectivity.

The historic concept of city and nature needs to be replaced with this new understanding of planetary urbanism as a dynamic closed loop system interfacing at the global, continental and the eco-regional scales that integrates the morphology and metabolism of the socio-ecological adaptive systems of different “places types” (cities). The design and development of the different “place types” (cities) at the various scales must integrate the formal morphological characteristics with the performative requirements of the circular metabolism of these socio-ecological adaptive urban systems within the projected changes for climate change. This will require a city to be understood as a multi-scalar habitat that is responsible and accountable for the generative conditions of its immediate biosphere as well as its ecological, economic and social footprint within a planetary system. It will also require the acceptance of spatial and urban planning and design as one of the tools for shaping a sustainable and equitable future simultaneously with reinventing the discipline to adequately address 21st century challenges [21].

To this end, it is useful to distinguish within the broad perspective of sustainable cities various levels of strategies and approaches. Peter Newman accurately three different levels of urbanism, these being: (1) green design which focus’s to improve the conventional development through increasing its efficiency and lowering its ecological footprint; (2) sustainable development aims to be net zero in its footprint; whereas (3) regenerative urbanism uses the circular metabolism that enables new-positive outcomes and the possibility of restorative social, economic and environmental systems. Clearly given that city development together with the consumption patterns are not only exceeding planetary boundaries but are implicitly destructive together with the population demand, from a planetary perspective there is no other option than regenerative urbanism.

For the purposes of this workshop I will focus only on the advantages of the principle of compactness which is arguably the only urban form for regenerative urbanism. The principle of a compact urban morphology is essential to a more self-reliant circular metabolizing city while at the same time it promotes the efficiency of urban services and systems, the reduction in the consumption of land and use of biological resources; and the adaptability of the urban form itself to change over time. Importantly, compactness is the characteristic of urban form (shape, density and the mix of land uses) that reduces the overexploitation of natural resources and material consumption, and increases economies of agglomeration and connectivity between production and consumption, while having multiple benefits for residents in terms of proximity, connectivity and inclusiveness. Implicit in the principle of compact place-type morphologies is that there is no singular form that is ideal but a multiplicity of sustainable forms that respond to different historic and cultural settlement patterns and traditions, and different climatic and eco-zones. Most often there are multiple forms of urban compact co-existing with one city.

Recent studies indicate some of the enormous benefits of a compact morphology of urban form that ultimately lowers the metabolism of the city as well as having the potential to improve the quality of life in a city if it is matched with supporting public policy and funding at the national, regional and local scale [22].

Benefits include the following:

– Compactness is essential requirement of a resource efficient city which requires less materiality, infrastructure, space per person and natural resources to construct, operate and maintain:

– Compactness improves energy and water efficiency, and enables more efficient models of waste management and district heating;

– Compactness can reduce by up to 50% land used per housing unit and similarly reduce the costs of providing public services by 10-30%;

– Compactness decreases vehicular travel and associated costs by 20-50%; lowers congestion, air pollution and GHG emissions; and improves the provision of financially viable alternate forms of transportation;

– A compact urban form is probably the most decisive factor for a climate resilient city in terms of mitigation and carbon dioxide reduction yielding a wide range of positive co-benefits for adaptation and socio-economic development;

– Compactness together with approx. 45% of land devoted to connected public areas for the common good (streets, parks, public spaces, etc.) developed in a street network model and buildings with a horizontal and vertical mix of uses (min. 40%) that achieves at least approx. 15,000 people per km2 / 150 in habitants per hectare / 61 inhabitants per acre has the potential to increase the access to and the viability of public life, social equity, engagement and participation, egalitarianism, community prosperity, and a healthy and humane habitat for people;

– Compactness framed with socio-ecological performative infrastructure (eco-compactness) like great streets, urban parks, greenways, rivers systems can cool cities by reducing urban heat stress, reduce GHG emissions, provide climate adaptation, and improve public health;

– Compactness together with strong boundaries of cities has the potential to increase conservation of habitat, biodiversity hotspots, and requisite carbon sinks. An equivalency of performance calculation is needed to determine the necessary off-sets for healthy cities so that as cities are built there is the immediate conservation of the needed biodiversity, biological resources and ecosystems services. Without such an approach a sustainable city cannot be designed, developed and managed.

– Compactness improves efficiency of management and operation of the city over the long-term;

Thus, the urban development principle of compactness that contains the necessary number of inhabitants to support an efficient and well-functioning urban system requires the integrated with the other principles. If this is the case then compactness can bring about a transformative change, enabling low-carbon, energy efficient, risk-informed and resilient urban development option that fundamentally lower the metabolism impact per person and make cities more locally self-sufficient and humane.

It is essential that compactness work in an integrative manner with the principles of connectivity and functionality of ecological systems and the affordance of the humane city. Connectivity requires the optimization of urban material flows with the intent to create circular urban metabolism and thus, offer the potential to be restorative of the biosphere. Clearly, the restorative potential depends of each city varies dependent upon location, geography, local resources and climate and will be impacted by climate change. The ability to deliver such an approach at the requisite large scale and high-performance depends upon leadership and governance, and a collective engagement with people in order to create a holistic, healthy and humane city [H3]. It is essential to improve the opportunity and services for people within cities. For too long the city has been the place of opportunity for the few – not all!

The three principles connected, compact and humane will be investigated through the case the following case study.

3.0 Case Study: The Living Delta: New Orleans & the Mississippi River Delta

This case study is a reflection on and synopsis of the lessons learned from working on the ground with communities dealing with the consequences of Hurricane Katrina and the projections for the impact of climate change in the Lower Mississippi River Delta. This particular urban landscape with its dynamic ecology and historic cities is an exemplary example of the co-evolution of urbanization and environmental, socio-economic and social vulnerability, adaptation and regeneration. It is a historical fact the major cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge where consciously built in this high-risk deltaic landscape with the knowledge that cities where vulnerable to frequent floods. However, it was always anticipated by the initial designers and developers of these cities that sufficient infrastructure could be built to provide the necessary protection against flooding and the Mississippi River could be “designed” to control flooding while providing navigation and an economic base. So from a historical perspective the Lower Mississippi River was a planned adaption of an environmental system to which the socio-economic system responded to deliver the current urban socio-economic landscape and community.

Notwithstanding these historical intentions, the Lower Mississippi River Delta landscape is an ideal location today to study the intersection of urbanization, resource scarcity and climate change given the sheer enormity and visibility of the changes that is occurring daily. As has been well documented the Lower Mississippi River Delta is losing a football field size of wetlands per hour, under constant threat of sea level rise, with much of the area simultaneously subsiding, and extreme weather – in particular hurricanes – predicted to be on the increase. Although generally unacknowledged in the public but increasingly scientifically documented, this impact has been on-going for many decades. Current rates of land loss pose an unsustainable future for Coastal Louisiana, which has lost nearly 4,875 km2 of land over the past century [23]. Without future action, nearly 4,532 km2 of land is predicted to be lost over the next 50 years [24]. The impact of extreme weather has been exemplified in the 2005 Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the more recent 2016 Louisiana Floods in Baton Rouge with multi-billions of dollars in damage.

As a design professional in the field assisting, facilitating and completing recovery planning and rebuilding communities after disaster for a more resilient future, the dichotomy between autonomous vs. planned, private vs. public, and anticipatory vs. reactive climate adaptation and regeneration responses as well as socio-economic justice implications for climate change becomes immediately visible and a wicked design problem.


[1] Demography trends and numbers from UN. 2015 World Population Prospects: the 2015 Revision, New York, NY: UN.

[2] UNPD, 2005.

[3] UNPD, 2006.

[4] UN, 2004.

[5] OECD working paper, 2010. The global middle class is defined as all those living in households with daily per capita incomes of between US$10 and US$100 in purchasing power parity terms.

[6] The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements, 2003,

[7] Seto K C, Güneralp B and Hutyra L R 2012 Global forecasts of urban expansion to 2030 and direct impacts on biodiversity and carbon pools Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109 16083-8.

[8] Angel S, Parent J, Civco D L, Blei A and Potere D 2011. The dimensions of global urban expansion: estimates and projections for all countries, 2000-2050 Prog. Plann. 75 53–107 and Seto K C, Fragkias M, Güneralp B and Reilly M K 2011 A meta-analysis of global urban land expansion PLoS One 6 e23777.

[9] Cohen B 2004 Urban growth in developing countries: a review of current trends and a caution regarding existing forecasts World Dev. 32 23-51.

[10] Vale and Vale 1976, Luniak 1994, Kowarik 1995, Marzluff 2001.

[11] Stein BA, Kutner L, Adams J. 2000. Precious Heritage. Oxford (United Kingdom): Oxford University Press.

[12] TEEB, 2011.

[13] Conservation International.

[14] Conservation International.

[15] Imhoff et al 2004, Foley et al 2005, Parshall et al 2010, Zhou et al 2010, Martínez-Zarzoso and Maruotti 2011, Zhou et al 2013, Aronson et al 2014

[16] Hansen et al 2001, Kalnay and Cai 2003.

[17] Stone 2008.

[18] Nicholls 1995, Rosenzweig & Solecki 2001.

[19] Hewitt, 1983; Castree and Braun, 2001.

[20] Nicholls 1995, Rosenzweig & Solecki 200, Hewitt, 1983, Castree and Braun, 2001.

[21] In this context it was only in 2015 that the UN-Habitat Governing Council approved the Urban and Territorial Planning for Sustainable Development.

[22] see Habitat Papers III.

[23] Couvillion, B.R.; Barras, J.A.; Steyer, G.D.; Sleavin, William; Fischer, Michelle; Beck, Holly; Trahan, Nadine; Griffin,Brad; and Heckman, David, 2011, Land area change in coastal Louisiana from 1932 to 2010: U.S. Geological Survey, Scientific Investigations Map 3164, scale 1:265,000, 12 p. pamphlet.

[24] Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan, developed by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.


[1] Chair, Urban Design and Professor of Architecture and Urban Design
Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Design, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1079, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, 63130 USA. H3 Studio, Founding Partner
4395 Laclede Ave, St. Louis MO USA Correspondence:





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