In 1800 only 3% of us lived in cities but in 2008, for the first time in human history, that had risen to over half. By 2030 it will be more likely 80%. Globally there are 468 cities of over one million people, and 19 of those are ‘megacities’ with over 10 million inhabitants.
I used to hate cities and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would choose to live in one. I thought they were dirty and dangerous, crowded and impersonal. But now that I do live in one (Manchester) I can see that this is just one side of the coin. Although the danger and dirt are maybe greater it’s in no way a proportional increase to the number of people that they home and there are benefits.
The opportunities for learning and entertainment in cities vastly outstrip the countryside and whilst I love sitting round a fire on a beach with a guitar as much as the next person I do also appreciate living somewhere I can see world class theatre, film and music any day of the week and join classes to learn anything from Capoirea to Cantonese. The impersonality which used to bother me I now appreciate. Having grown up in a small village where everyone knew everything about you it’s kind of nice to have the privacy that several social circles allow. There is a community that I am a part of for everything that interests me.
Sustainable travel is infinitely more possible in a good urban environment. Potentially everything we want – be it work, home or leisure can be accessible by foot, pedal power or public transport, saving us time and money, reducing pollution and making us fitter into the bargain. Manchester doesn’t have a great cycle network but it has a great grassroots cycling community. I’m really interested to see how a place like Copenhagen, where 55% of all journeys in the inner city are by bike, works and feels from a cyclists viewpoint.
Although cities are not renowned for their biodiversity they are improving and the benefit of green spaces and the possibilities of green corridors through them are being recognised and developed. Although cities will always be reliant upon their rural hinterlands for a large proportion of their water, food and energy they cover only 3% of the planet’s land area.That’s a lot of space left for everything else we share the planet with.
75% of human energy consumption is directly related to cities but there are opportunities to reduce this and this is one of the things that I hope to discover more about on this trip. Back in the oil shocks of the 70’s there was a real drive to reduce energy use and find alternative sources. The UK pretty much gave up on this with the discovery of oil in the North Sea but our neighbours weren’t so (apparently) lucky and instead were driven to develop very high building standards and renewable energy schemes. Now with the pressure of reducing oil reserves, energy security and climate change we’re starting to wake up to the possibilities. But there lies a steep learning curve ahead of us and the more knowledge we can glean from those who have gone before us the better.
I’m going to be visiting a number of places that have taken a forward thinking approach to energy and see what lessons I can learn from them. At the same time I’m going to try looking at how they approach holistic sustainability – from placemaking and social cohesion to transport and waste. Some of them are cities and some are more rural but all of them have considered energy provision on a local level rather than just expecting it to be piped in from far away.
And I go in one month time.