The year 2007 was a landmark. Not only did it see the start of the biggest global financial crisis since the 1920s – it was also the first year that more people lived in urban areas than rural ones. Today, 4 billion people live in cities around the world.
In the broad sweep of history, urbanisation is an extremely recent phenomenon – largely confined to the past two centuries. And this most world-changing of trends is yet to run its course. By 2050, it’s projected that 68 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas.
The rapid rate of urbanisation has created problems unprecedented in prior human history. Among these, slum-dwelling looms large. Between 2014 and 2018, the proportion of the global urban population living in slums increased from 23 to 24 per cent. Today, more than one billion people live in slums, mostly concentrated in three regions: Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central and Southern Asia. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted these most vulnerable city residents.
At Springwise, we have seen many innovations that address the multiple interconnected challenges that we must overcome to deliver sustainable cities and communities.
Sustainable urban planning
Urbanisation has often been rapid and haphazard, straining infrastructure and resources. As the urban population continues to grow, a more coherent and joined up approach is vital. Several innovative technology tools are making joined up thinking easier, while ensuring all residents are considered. For example, areas of informal urban housing are often unmapped, and therefore miss out on basic services.
To show how this problem can be addressed, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently used 3D-scanning technology to map Brazil’s largest favela. Elsewhere, artificial intelligence is being used to optimise planning and decision-making. For example, a new design tool uses machine learning to quickly explore millions of neighbourhood design options – allowing city planners to take a wider variety of issues into account from the start of the process.
Fair and equal access to green public transport is another important consideration when it comes to delivering sustainable cities. Currently, over half of the world’s urban population has no convenient access to public transport, and clean transport options have been adopted slowly in some parts of the world. For example, electric mobility has been growing at a much slower rate in Africa than in the developed world.
To tackle this, Opibus, a Swedish-Kenyan company, has recently unveiled the first-ever electric bus designed and developed in Africa. The new bus is tailored to be mass-produced for the pan-African market. SDG 11 is also concerned with ensuring that factors such as gender, age, and disability do not hinder access to public transport. One innovation tackling this is a conceptual bus redesign that helps elderly passengers travel safely.
Water scarcity and disaster resilience
Target 11.5 within SDG 11 challenges countries to reduce the impact of disasters, including water-related disasters. Over a third of the world’s 526 large cities are in water-scarce regions. One innovation that aims to tackle urban draught, is a water panel designed to fit discreetly onto the walls of buildings, collecting rainwater and pumping it into the water system. The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted how vulnerable cities are to infectious disease. In response, a Spanish architecture firm has developed the concept of a self-sufficient city designed to help people get through extended lockdowns.
Air pollution is a pervasive issue around the world. In fact, 99 per cent of the world’s population is exposed to air pollution levels that increase the risk of disease. Air pollution is not only an urban problem, but residents of fast-developing cities are at particular risk. In response, many cities are ramping up efforts to monitor air quality. For example, Polish startup Airly has developed an AI-powered air quality platform that is used by over 600 local governments across Asia and Europe. Another startup in India has developed a purification device that removes toxic pollutants from the air and stores them in a container to be recycled.
Urban green spaces offer a range of health benefits for city residents. These include better mental health, fewer cases of depression, improved pregnancy outcomes, and lower rates of cardiovascular morbidity, obesity, and diabetes. But the amount of green space varies significantly between cities. For example, 68 per cent of the public spaces in Oslo are parks and gardens compared to just 2.2 per cent for Istanbul. Innovators have been working hard to find creative ways to maximise the amount of greenery – even in tightly packed urban areas. For example, a disused tobacco factory in Santander, Spain has been converted into the world’s largest vertical garden. And a Swiss project uses an app to connect interested locals with expert rewilders to pursue super-concentrated urban rewilding projects.
Words: Matthew Hempstead
Do you know an innovation that’s supporting SDG 11 and the push for sustainable cities? Tell us about it!
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8th February 2022