Urban experts call for smarter approach to cities

By on 19 October, 2016
High rises and hotel buildings in Punta Pacifica, Panama City, Panama. Photo: Gerardo Pesantez / World Bank

High rises and hotel buildings in Punta Pacifica, Panama City, Panama. Photo: Gerardo Pesantez / World Bank


An urban environment expert at The Australian National University (ANU) is among leading scientists calling for a greater say on a new international plan for cities of the future, ahead of a major United Nations conference currently being held.

Professor Xuemei Bai from ANU is one of the scientific leaders of the Urban Knowledge Action Network to be launched at the UN Habitat III conference in Ecuador.

Cities already account for about 75 per cent of global energy use and contribute an equivalent share of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Delegates from the world over are currently in Quito to adopt a new global framework that will guide sustainable urban development for the next 20 years – the New Urban Agenda (NUA).

“Unfortunately science didn’t play a major role in the drafting of the NUA,” said Professor Bai from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society.

Professor Bai said more urban areas would be built in the next 30 years than ever before.

“Cities already account for about 75 per cent of global energy use and contribute an equivalent share of greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.

“If cities expand business as usual, the projected urbanisation alone will breach the warming limit set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement.”

Professor Bai and colleagues from the United States, South Africa, United Kingdom, Sweden and India wrote a comment article that appeared in Nature this week arguing that urban scientists needed to be better organised and to have a greater role in shaping future cities.

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The article states: “The Habitat III agenda requires a global community of urban biophysical and social scientists to assess developments and help direct progress. To achieve the SDGs and the NUA, the global urban research community must come together to develop institutions, funding mechanisms and research agendas.”

Another prominent voice in the discussion has also suggested that geospatial technology holds at least part of the answer to solving this very problem.

Xueman Wang, Coordinator of Cities and Climate Change at the World Bank suggested in a blog post this week that geospatial technology is the key solution to help cities plan for a sustainable future.

“If geospatial technology and data already make our everyday lives this easier,” she says “imagine what they can do for our cities.”

“For example,” she continued “…using geospatial data on land-use change and built-up land expansion can provide for more responsive urban planning, while information on traffic conditions, road networks, and solid waste sites can help optimize management and enhance the quality of urban living.”

Urbanisation globally – particularly in China, India and Africa, but also countries such as Australia – is one of the biggest social transformations in human history.

“This poses major challenges such as land use, resource demand, and air and water pollution for city planners and policymakers,” Professor Bai said.

“Australia is already highly urbanised, but it is one of the few developed countries that are still experiencing rapid urban expansion.”

The Urban Knowledge Action Network would be a global research and engagement platform that aims to achieve sustainable urban development across the world, bringing together researchers, policymakers and urban practitioners. It remains to be seen what role spatial technologies will play in ensuring the network is appropriately quantified.


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