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World Cities Day: Here’s how we can build a better urban life for future generations

October 30, 2019

By Nancy MacDonald and David Smith

Our communities are facing unprecedented change, but we have the power to turn challenges into sustainability

We are amid a global urban shift. More than 3.5 billion people live in cities, and that number is expected to double by 2050. That’s a massive uptick in densification, meaning our urban planning and urban design approaches are becoming increasingly important by the day.

The United Nations has designated October 31 as World Cities Day—a day to recognize the challenges (and opportunities) of urbanization and to foster conversations around enabling sustainable urban development around the world. Why? Because the issue of sustainable urbanization moves well beyond our city limits and our state borders. The development approaches our cities undertake affect us all—through economic trade, climate change, and the movement of people.

To coincide with World Cities Day, Stantec is releasing Community Futures, a look at the challenges faced by post-industrial cities and how they can prosper. A collection of seven chapters, Community Futures speaks to the most significant trends influencing our cities, from climate change to digital innovation.

The Route 9A complete street project in New York City replaced a deteriorated highway with a safe, multi-modal, pedestrian-friendly corridor.

Directly relevant to the themes in Community Futures, the main goals of World Cities Day 2019 are to:

  • Increase awareness of how digital innovations can be used for urban service delivery to enhance the quality of life and improve the urban environment.
  • Show new frontier technologies that can create more inclusive cities.
  • Present opportunities for renewable energy generation in cities.
  • Explore how frontier technologies can promote social inclusion in cities.

These goals look to address the major challenges our communities are facing related to housing, the environment, climate change, infrastructure, basic services, food security, health, education, the economy, safety, and natural resources. All these issues profoundly affect the work we do and are affected by the work we do.

While the challenges ahead are enormous, success is attainable. There are few things more worthy of our collective efforts than a better approach to urbanization.

The stakes are clear: better city, better life.

LIDAR and drone technologies are used to proactively address the effects of sea erosion affecting New Zealand’s State Highway 1, including at Katiki Beach in Dunedin.

Community Futures: Seven chapters on critical uncertainties for cities

The first step to accomplishing the goals we set out for ourselves is to be realistic about the challenges we face. The pace of change in our communities has been quickening, which makes it more important to get in front of our collective challenges.

Community Futures lays out the seven most prominent challenges—the high impact, critical uncertainties we’re facing right now, their interconnected nature, and how local tactics can provide global solutions.

Climate Change: the scale of the challenge. Meaningfully, this is number one. How we adapt, how we design our sustainable infrastructure and how quickly we implement it over the next 20 years will determine the future of human civilization.

Biosphere: from pollution to regeneration. Scientific evidence points to the start of a new era in the Earth’s existence called the Anthropocene, where human activity is reshaping the planet’s natural systems. The accelerating changes to our biosphere will shift political, community, investment, and economic agendas in the coming years, and force more urgent responses.

Cities stand on the front line in meeting the challenges of climate change, regenerating the biosphere and natural environment, and creating sustainable, socially inclusive development.

Water, Energy and Agriculture: opportunity through transformation. Threatened water supplies, growing energy demand, and the need for carbon emission reductions overlap significantly. These integrated issues have a profound effect on our environment, not least of all our food production system.

The Rise of Digital Cities: pervasive systems and automation. Digital innovation is already reshaping our communities. Systems that work in real time and combine sensors, drones, data analytics, artificial intelligence, and predictive algorithms have the power to address some of our biggest challenges but also need to balance individual rights and freedoms.

Transport: radical innovation ahead. Shifting the goal of transport policy from moving cars to moving people will give new priority to a range of modes enabled by electric and digital innovation, from e-scooters to ride-hailing to bus rapid transit. An increasingly diverse mix of modes could unlock valuable urban real estate, now dedicated to parking, for sustainable urban development and a richer public realm.

Creative Communities: building a sense of place. Cities will increasingly treat soft infrastructure—cultural resources, sustainability measures, natural and green spaces, and social inclusion—as an essential complement to traditional hard infrastructure in managing climate threats and creating a “place” people want to be. Decarbonization will require an end to consumption-based, resource-intensive economic development; instead, it will favor a model organized around the knowledge economy.

Cities, Communities, and Governance: think globally, act locally. Realistically, cities have little choice in taking the lead on pledges made in the UN Paris Agreement, because two-thirds of humanity will live in cities by 2050. The nuts and bolts of building and executing policy will happen here, where the impacts of rising sea levels, flooding, and extreme heat will hit first.

Once we truly understand the interconnected nature of our systems and the scale of the challenge, we can build the tools we need to address them. But first we must look to common goals to unite our efforts.

Mohawk Valley Welcome Center in Randall, New York. From Building a Hyperconnected City: 76% of 100 cities surveyed said they have widely or partially deployed EV charging stations.

Creating shared goals to meet our challenges

As we look to a guiding light to provide us with shared goals to meet the challenges facing our cities, a great place to start is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN’s blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all, the SDGs address the global challenges of poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice with targeted milestones for 2030.

The UN SDGs have three important ingredients that give them the authority to lead the way:

  1. They are researched and based in experience.
  2. They are concrete and measurable, with a timeline attached.
  3. They facilitate partnership and cooperation.

The UN SDGs have the power to unify government, nongovernmental organizations, and businesses in a common cause. From Stantec’s perspective, we are actively working on tracking the UN’s SDG metrics in our core operations and client services. Sustainability is at the core of our business because it must be—the communities we work in depend on it.

All the SDGs are important for Community Futures, but on World Cities Day, we especially call out SDG 11—Sustainable Cities and Communities: make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.

The 30 MW HCPV solar facility in Alamosa, Colorado, uses innovative engineering and high efficiency photovoltaic cells to power approximately 6,500 homes.

Engaging the right tools

In thinking about the future of urban development, we’ve established where we are, and we have a path defining where we need to go. Just like any big undertaking, our success depends on engaging the right tools for the job. At Stantec, we’re currently rolling out two initiatives that will have a real impact in how we plan for our urban future.

First, we are working with the International Downtown Association in the United States to roll out the IDA Vitality Index, powered by Stantec, an interactive, online tool to benchmark the vitality of downtowns across the country. The tool looks at 32 US downtowns and assesses their vitality based on economy, inclusion, and vibrancy. As the tool continues to add data from more downtowns, it will help other downtowns become vibrant, reliable economic engines that can carry their communities into a prosperous future.

Second, we will be releasing a playbook on Building a Hyperconnected City, developed by ESI ThoughtLab. The playbook will give leaders a path to creating a digitally enabled and seamlessly interlinked ecosystem to benefit residents. The research looks at more than 100 metro centers across the globe to understand what challenges cities are looking to solve in safety, mobility, energy, public health, and other areas. Respondents shared what technological solutions they’re employing or looking to employ—from Mobility-as-a-Service to public EV charging stations to drone technology—and assessed what’s delivering return on investment and what isn’t. Early results show that 45% of cities deploying smart environmental and energy initiatives are improving citizen health, 44% are reducing pollution, and 43% are stabilizing energy prices. By learning from the experiences of smart city leaders, other cities can better plan their path forward using digital innovation.

Overall, cities can map out a path to a vibrant, sustainable, and bright future. Consideration of the seven critical uncertainties for cities—as set out in Community Futures—and critically evaluating the varying scenarios that emerge will enable that path to be defined with maximum confidence for the community and local ecosystem.

Considering the evidence, one must conclude that cities stand on the front line in meeting the challenges of climate change, regenerating the biosphere and natural environment, and creating sustainable, socially inclusive development. Key to this will be solutions that integrate across the natural and built environment and that are embracing of technology and societal change.  

Thinking globally and acting locally has never mattered more.

  • Nancy MacDonald

    Nancy is our regional business lead for infrastructure in the UK and Ireland—she’s focused on supporting our Community Development and Transportation teams as they drive research and development.

    Contact Nancy
  • David Smith

    Calling on over three decades of global experience as well as his masters studies from Henley Management College, David drives Stantec’s corporate strategy and growth initiatives. He’s also published thought leadership work in the water sector.

    Contact David
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