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'Tsunami' of City Dwellers a Global Threat: Harcourt

Canada needs to lead in urban eco-design, urges former Vancouver mayor.

By Sarah Ripplinger 28 Oct 2009 |

Sarah Ripplinger is a freelance reporter based in Vancouver, B.C. She is also the B.C. editor and assistant editor of Momentum magazine. Visit her blog here.

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A fast, massive shift from rural to urban living.

He was Vancouver's mayor before becoming premier of British Columbia, so no one could mistake Mike Harcourt for a city-hating, back-to-the-land kind of guy.

But his message lately paints a dark picture of city life in the future -- unless Canada shows the way in designing and building green urban systems.

Harcourt and other experts say a massive global population shift towards city life is undermining efforts to combat climate change and achieve sustainable communities.

A massive global shift

Millions of people are flooding the world's urban centres, placing increased pressure on infrastructure and available resources. According to the United Nations, the world's urban population surpassed its rural population in 2008.

As a result, city officials have to find the means to construct more buildings and roads and provide more goods and services to meet the demands of swelling communities. It also means there will be a greater need for agricultural land and access to clean sources of drinking water.

Add this to the push in developing nations to attain Western standards of living, and you get an urban tsunami, said Harcourt during a presentation held at UBC Robson Square in September. It was a theme he picked up on again when he spoke at the Resilient Cities conference last week in Vancouver.

There are already warning signs on the horizon that the full force of the tsunami will hit sooner than expected.

Harcourt, who chairs QUEST -- an action group designed to improve Canada's urban energy systems -- and is the associate director of the UBC Continuing Studies Centre for Sustainability, says that projections show a global population expansion of four billion people or more in a little more than 40 years. And 75 per cent of the 10 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050 will reside in urban centres.

"It's not just the size of population growth overall," Harcourt told his Robson Square audience. "It's where it's happening; in cities."

Asia and Africa most challenged

The bulk of the population expansion will take place in the developing world, mainly in Asia and Africa, Harcourt said. This shift to city life will place a great deal of pressure on the infrastructure and services available in those urban centres.

Particularly worrying for Harcourt and his colleagues is the prospect that the developing world could end up replicating the ecologically destructive ways cities have evolved in the developed world.

China and India, Harcourt pointed out, are undergoing a rapid technological revolution in a bid to attain the modern conveniences found in the Western world -- a goal that, when coupled with population growth, could have dire consequences for the planet.

"The global population increase has gone from one billion in 1800, to two billion by 1930, to six billion by the year 2000, to eight and a half billion by 2025, to nine to ten billion by 2050. . . that's the problem; it's population growth."

Harcourt adds that while population growth in and of itself may not seem alarming, the rate at which population numbers are climbing and the extent to which this growth is occurring in cities should be raising some eyebrows.

As the equivalent of the population of two Chinas makes its way to the city from the countryside in search of jobs and other opportunities, governments will be faced with the challenge of how to manage rapid growth on an unprecedented scale.

Canada's unsustainable city-dwellers

Canada's population is already largely urban. About 80 per cent of Canadians reside in some form of urban centre. Still, Harcourt says Canadian lifestyles remain far from sustainable.

The reason? We consume significantly more resources than the rest of the world. To supply and absorb the goods, services and waste of an average Canadian would require approximately seven hectares of productive land per person. Multiply that by the 6.7 billion people living on the planet and you get a number that far exceeds the estimated 13.5 billion hectares of land and water available for human use.

That fact alone has many researchers concerned about the future sustainability of our global communities.

William Rees, whose concept of the ecological footprint has received international attention, said what Canada and the world need to do right now is establish national population policies.

This is necessary, Rees explained in a telephone interview, because not having such a policy in place will mean that communities will continue to expand at an unsustainable rate, placing even more pressure on the global ecosystems required to support human life and, particularly, modern lifestyles.

Consumption rising three times faster than population

Rees, a professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC, said his real concern is not that the global population is increasing by about one per cent each year, it's that per capita consumption is increasing at an average yearly rate of three per cent. That equals a grand total of a four per cent increase in the rate of consumption globally each year.

"Which means we're doubling our impact in about 17-and-a-half years to 20 years."

Governments will have to take the reins to avoid having a catastrophic impact on the earth's ecosystems, already stretched to the limit by demands from urban and rural dwellers alike, Rees said.

Policies, such as smart growth, have received a lot of accolade as well as some dissension from the sustainability community.

In a paper on population growth in cities Randal O'Toole questions the benefits smart growth policies have had on achieving sustainable cities.

"Thanks to smart-growth policies, Vancouver and Victoria are the least affordable housing markets in Canada," says O'Toole, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute who studies urban growth, public land and transportation issues. In the paper, published in 2009 in The Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, O'Toole states that despite "decades of smart-growth-like land-use regulation in Europe, European travel habits are not significantly different from those in the U.S.: where Americans drive for 84 per cent of travel, Europeans drive for 79 per cent."

That's where governments need to step in, according to Rees. Smart growth principles, such as housing densification and decreasing the distance people have to travel to get from home to work and play, require government investment in affordable housing and mass transit.

Sharing sustainable solutions is a must

At the international level, it comes down to sharing the information we have about how to create sustainable cities.

The key issue here, according to Harcourt, is to not have 10 billion people living like the average Canadian does now by the year 2050.

"If the Chinese and the Indians decided to copy our kind of sprawl -- car, big house, misuse of energy, misuse of scarce natural resources -- we would need four planets, but there's only one."

The idea is to avoid a global urban tsunami where the rapid, and often unsustainable, expansion of cities results in more greenhouse gasses spewed into the atmosphere and a heavier reliance on manufactured consumer goods.

"Right now, one half of all construction is taking place in China," Rees said. "And it's inefficient construction using concrete, which is incredibly energy intensive, and the main source of energy is coal."

It's up to Canada and other developed nations, therefore, to share "our best examples of modern construction technology, for free."

Developing countries will be looking to Canada for solutions to sustainably manage large urban populations.

'If Canada can't, no one can'

According to Harcourt, who served as mayor of Vancouver from 1980 to 1986, and NDP premier of B.C. from 1991 to 1996, "If Canada can't become sustainable, no one can."

And Harcourt believes Canada can become a sustainable leader on the international stage. The best approach to setting a good example, he said, is to consume less and live more modest and less resource-heavy lifestyles.

"Where we are now, we can't sustain, and that's what sustainability is all about."

It will mean condensing cities, moving more people into smaller-sized homes located close to jobs and recreational activities. In other words, smart growth.

Economic factors are likely to convince more individuals that spending hours on the road and paying hundreds of dollars in gas money and thousands on a mortgage doesn't make good economic sense. Still, the close-quarter lifestyle of downtown city life isn't for everyone.

That brings up the difficult question of reducing pressure on the natural environment through population control.

The issue, Harcourt said, is to try to decrease the projected 10 billion people soon to arrive on earth to eight billion or less. The way to get there is not clear-cut, but Harcourt believes that the education and empowerment of women across the world is likely to result in more women choosing to have fewer children.

It may not solve all the problems associated with the urban tsunami so long as per capita consumption rates continue to rise, particularly in the developing world. It could, nonetheless, form part of future government planning, as municipalities, provinces, states and countries consider their carrying capacity and if and when to draw a line on future growth.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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