Philipp Rode is Executive Director of LSE Cities and Associate Professorial Lecturer at the School of Public Policy. He is Co-Director of the LSE Executive MSc in Cities and co-convenes the Public Policy course on ‘City Making: The Politics of Urban Form’. As researcher, consultant and advisor he has been directing interdisciplinary projects comprising urban governance, transport, city planning and urban design at the LSE since 2003.
There is no doubt that cities will continue to grow, but will there come a point where we live in a world of cities without limits?
Many cities and urban areas are growing in population, because many people who lived in rural areas have moved to cities, but that is only a quarter of the total growth. The most important increase is natural. The number of people being born in urban areas is significantly higher than the number dying in these places. In addition, there are those who live in urban areas that were previously rural. We can clearly envisage that the growth in the number of people living in urban areas will continue. This change relates to the economy and the growth of the urban population which has much to do with the shift from the agriculture to the service sector.
In Europe, however, there are many places where the population is not increasing, that are no longer growing in absolute terms. If we examine India, sub-Saharan Africa, or some parts of Latin America, we still see a considerable population growth and that leads to an increase in the extent of cities and urban areas. Is it without limits? Of course not. At some point the population will peak, and the amount of available territory for building cities will become limited. We have to be careful not to extend cities beyond ecological boundaries. We are entering a time where the limits will be more pronounced, a time where there will be an interest in self-limitations, otherwise negative consequences will follow.
We must accept – and celebrate – the idea of setting limits. I think there are good cities that have been built with considerable restrictions. Compared to urban environments that do not have boundaries, cities that have the limitation of being on an island where there are mountains and sea tend to be places that function better and have more beautiful and more efficient spaces.
With this in mind, what conclusions can we draw from COP26?
With regard to COP26 it isn’t about having objectives for 2050 or 2070. It is about the next 10 years, the next 12 months. It is our current behavior that matters. We now have a goal of reducing global emissions by 45 percent by 2030, the point at which many cities have said they want to be carbon neutral. This is in 9 or 10 years. We have to introduce a much more radical roadmap than the one we have been using up to now. The changes that have occurred during the pandemic is the best point of reference: people rediscovering their neighborhoods, resuming physical activity, understanding how they can use digitalisation and connectivity to avoid having to travel for work and constantly catch planes. We also have to tackle the problem of infrastructure and the construction of buildings. We cannot continue with non-stop building until we have low carbon materials.
Would smart cities be a solution to carbon footprint issues or is it just a business proposition?
Scientists have already pointed out that without a change in behavior the situation won’t change. We need to talk about three big areas of change. Technology first, and this will happen one way or another. There is a lot of interest from companies, the change is already significant, but not enough. Second, the design. We must think about the shape we give to our streets, our buildings because they can become much more energy efficient in the future. The third, and most important issue for the next few months, is behaviour. We all need to change our behaviour in cities and that is something that should be on the smart cities roadmap.
Behavioural change is something very political. It’s about how our politicians and communities work together to really understand just how far we can go and then links need to be made to comparable and fair results. It’s an area that smart cities don’t contemplate. They don’t consider how the introduction of technological innovation worsens the situation for those with less resources while favouring the outcome for the elites.
We need a behavioural change from those at the top. This is is very important for matters relating to the climate. It’s not about the poor changing their way of life now. Those who pollute the most are, by far, those who have the most.
How can we use smart technology to create more efficient cities, with a better quality of life?
We need to look at technology as something that enables behavioural change. For example, transportation. Is it a revolution in how we move and behave during the trip or is it simply a change of engine? From a city perspective, changing the engine is not enough. Electric vehicles help with air pollution, the resources are renewable, but it does not help to make urban environments more attractive in terms of space. We use a lot of room to park the vehicle and to move it, and this is space taken away from people to live in. What we need to think about is a technology that allows us to switch to public transport, to walk, to ride a bike … these propositions are much more attractive. Smart technology can also help us in terms of understanding how to produce. How much energy do you need, how can the expense be fair?
What cities take the approach you’re outlining?
Even the cities that are trying the most to achieve these goals have not yet achieved what is needed. But we could highlight Milan and Turin in terms of their sustainable food supply policy, an issue that is rarely talked about. When it comes to transport, London has been operating low-emission zones, as has Barcelona, which is experimenting with alternative street usage. In energy, there are cities like Munich that are making strategic changes to the use of traditional fuels in their companies. As well as in Asia, the Latin American cities of Curitiba and Bogotá are also making innovations in transportation.
Bearing in mind the present context, what next steps could we take?
What we could do right now is very simple. If it’s possible to think beyond our daily needs, I believe it is very important to consider in which areas we’re spending the most CO2. There are many computer programs available to discover our carbon footprint. From this point, we can contemplate reducing damage. It’s also important to vote and know where our politicians are in terms of climate change and sustainable development.