Cities People Planet: Liveable Cities for a Sustainable World

Cities People Planet: Liveable Cities for a Sustainable World

by Herbert Girardet

Cities People Planet is a textbook on how we can address the many challenges of urbanisation. Through a fast moving text and ninety case studies, the author presents leading-edge initiatives and policies on how to make cities around the world both liveable and sustainable. Starting with a concise environmental and cultural history of cities, the book continues as a… See more details below


Cities People Planet is a textbook on how we can address the many challenges of urbanisation. Through a fast moving text and ninety case studies, the author presents leading-edge initiatives and policies on how to make cities around the world both liveable and sustainable. Starting with a concise environmental and cultural history of cities, the book continues as a contemporary global survey and analysis of the challenges of an urbanising world. The ecological redesign of cities, where practiced, is already showing substantial economic and social benefits and is now starting to be implemented across the world.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"...timely textbook..." (Ecologist, March 2005)

"...this book is as good a place as any to start..." (ref; issue of sustainability) (RIBA journal, March 2005)

"...a handy reference compendium of successful applications at both the building and urban design scale." (Urban Design Magazine, October 2005)

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Cities People Planet

Liveable Cities for a Sustainable World
By Herbert Girardet

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-470-86575-X

Chapter One

Big Feet, Small Planet

This book is about novel ways of looking at urban living. In the last 100 years we have acquired the capacity to see the earth from above-first looking down from airplanes, then taking pictures with cameras mounted on satellites. These views have revealed vast land areas across the world punctuated by dense urban clusters. The growth of large cities and their transport systems-connecting urban districts, and linking cities to each other and to the remotest regions of the planet-is a novel development that has enormous consequences for humanity, and for all life on earth.

As we take off or land in a plane, we can observe the awesome urban structures we have created-clusters of tall buildings in city centres; roads full of motor vehicles; factories and warehouses; high-rise apartment buildings and suburban sprawl; and farms and forests beyond the edge of the city, intersected by railway lines and motorways. The crucial dependence of cities on the land beyond their periphery seems obvious when seen from above, yet it gets barely a mention in the literature. An urbanising humanity has come to dominate much of the surface of the earth.

The job of urban planners and managers is to create spatial structures that satisfy the needs of city people. We want them to provide a secure habitat for us,to allow us to move about our cities efficiently, and to provide pleasant spaces for work, for recreation and for meeting people. We want urban environments that are free from pollution and in which wastes don't accumulate.

But it is time that we also got to grips with our impacts beyond the boundaries of our cities.

Humans have always affected the environment from which they draw their sustenance. Hunting and the use of fire by our ancestors had significant impacts on living creatures and their habitats. Farmers throughout history have significantly modified the landscapes they work and inhabit. But urban society, with its fossil fuel-powered industrial, farming and transport systems, has had unprecedented impacts on nature. Our numbers are larger than ever before, and our power to affect the global environment, has reached a critical stage. We need to reverse the collision course between humans and nature on which we now find ourselves, and this book suggests that this is, above all else, a challenge for city people.

Urban consumption and waste disposal are threatening both nature and human existence. In the last 30 years a third of the natural world has been obliterated. But as a consequence, we are also starting to learn an important lesson-that we damage the world's life-support system at our peril. We are faced with a new imperative: modern living needs to be in harmony with the planet-and this is a challenge to individuals, business and government, and also to urban planners. Science, technology, individual action and government policies can be harnessed for restoring the health of our planet. Today, millions of people across the world are working to try to improve the condition of the global environment.

These are the main themes that this book is seeking to explore: can a world of ever-larger cities be sustainable-environmentally, socially and economically? Can cities continue to prosper if they significantly increase their resource productivity? Can they mimic natural ecosystems and transform themselves into circular, not linear, systems? How can we create cities of physical beauty, social diversity and cultural vigour that are also sustainable economically and environmentally? How can we put the pulsing heart of conviviality back into our cities?

Across the world, we need a revolution in urban problem solving, finding ways of making cities 'future proof'. The director general of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Maurice Strong, sums these issues up well: 'The battle to ensure that our planet remains a hospitable and sustainable home for the human species will be won or lost in the major urban areas.'


In the last 100 years, an extraordinary change has occurred on the face of the earth: cities are becoming our primary habitat. In 1900, 15 per cent of a global population of 1.5 billion people lived in cities. By 2000, 47 per cent of a global population of 6 billion lived in cities. In 1900, four cities of around one million-Beijing, Tokyo, Delhi and London-were the largest cities on earth. By 2000, there were 200 cities of one million, 100 between one and ten million, and some 20 megacities of more than ten million people. By 2030, 60 per cent of the world population, or 4.9 billion people, are expected to live in urban areas.

All-out urbanisation is fundamentally changing the condition of humanity and our relationship to the earth. We have been undergoing a staggering transformation: from living in a world of farms, villages and small towns, we are transforming ourselves into an urban species. From relying primarily on nature's local annual harvest, more and more of us are drawing on global food and timber supplies. From drawing on local energy sources, we have switched to tapping into stores of non-renewable energy resources across the world. From leading locally self-sufficient lives, more and more of us are becoming citizens of a human-centred planet.

Megacities of 10 million people or more are by far the largest structures ever to appear on the face of the earth. They reach deep underground, rise hundreds of metres into the air and stretch out horizontally over several hundred thousand hectares, with transport routes linking them to each other and to a global hinterland. With millions of citizens pursuing a vast diversity of activities -in commercial enterprises, markets, service industries and cultural endeavours-large modern cities are the most complex manifestation of human activity ever to emerge.

For simplicity's sake I use the word city to encompass both towns and cities. The definition of the word city varies greatly, depending on how much surrounding countryside is included within urban boundaries.

For instance, the current population of most of the world's largest areas including London, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Beijing, Jakarta, Dhaka and Bombay can vary by many millions of inhabitants in any year, depending on which boundaries are used to define their populations.

The main task of this book is to outline imaginative and realistic options for change. More often than not, the tools, techniques and partnerships that can help us create liveable cities can also be central to creating a sustainable relationship between people and planet. Urban growth has been well documented, but less so the growth of urban ecological impacts. My primary concern is not with urban growth per se, but rather with its implications both in terms of global use of resources and human living conditions. To make current urban lifestyles possible, cities are sucking in resources from all over the world. Located on just 2 per cent of the world's land surface, they use 75 per cent of its resources. If the energy use of urban food supply systems was included, this figure would be even higher. In the USA, the number of people fed per farm worker has grown more than sixfold, from 15 in 1950 to 96 in 1998, by a massive scaling up of the use of farming technology. In an urbanising world, the combined ecological footprints of cities extend to much of the earth's productive land.

Large modern cities, as centres of human endeavour, tend to regard themselves as centres of the universe and have effectively declared their independence from nature. And yet, they are vitally dependent on its integrity. American economist Robert Constanza has valued the world's 'ecosystem services' at $33 trillion per year-almost twice the combined global GNP of $18 trillion, which is primarily generated by urban-based economic activity. Ecosystem services include absolute necessities such as water supply, climate regulation, nutrient cycling, soil formation and pollination, as well as recreational services, all of which city people ultimately require for their existence.

As the urban visionary Patrick Geddes insisted half a century ago, it is crucial to understand cities as being embedded in their rural hinterland. Today, on a globalising planet, cities need to see themselves as part of a worldwide hinterland on whose ecosystem services they ultimately depend.

Can we lead enjoyable urban lives while minimising our impact on the local and global environment? City officials are usually preoccupied with pressing issues such as housing provision, public works, policing, transport, education and health care. Yet it is vital not to lose sight of wider and longer-term perspectives that underpin the viability of their cities. Ecology is the science of 'home making'. In a world of large cities, we urgently need to learn to create sustainable urban habitats. It is therefore very important to understand our cities as complex systems that coexist in a dynamic relationship with the world's ecosystems. This approach adds a new dimension to urban planning and management, and requires us to address local and global issues at the same time. These are new challenges for city authorities as well as citizens. For this purpose we need vibrant new partnerships between governments, local authorities, urban communities, NGOs and the private sector.


What, then, is a sustainable city? Here is my attempt at a definition:

A 'sustainable city' enables all its citizens to meet their own needs and to enhance their well-being, without degrading the natural world or the lives of other people, now or in the future.

We have to ask ourselves what specific measures need to be taken to create sustainable urban habitats, and how environmental and social concerns can be brought together into one compelling win-win scenario. The world community has vigorously addressed these issues since the early 1990s, starting with Agenda 21, the primary outcome of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. The Aalborg Charter, which was produced by the cities and towns of Europe in 1994, states this:

We understand that our present urban lifestyle, in particular our patterns of division of labour and functions, land-use, transport, industrial production, agriculture, consumption, and leisure activities, and hence our standard of living, make us essentially responsible for many environmental problems humankind is facing. This is particularly relevant as 80 per cent of Europe's population live in urban areas.

It further states that environmental sustainability means maintaining rather than depleting the world's natural capital, and that actions should urgently be taken to assure that the consumption of renewable material, water and energy resources does not exceed the rate at which natural systems can replenish themselves. Many new jobs can be created that contribute to both the environmental and economic sustainability of communities.

The Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements, arising out of the Istanbul UN City Summit of 1996, endorses the universal goals of ensuring adequate shelter for all and making human settlements more liveable, equitable and sustainable.

In order to sustain our global environment and improve the quality of living in our human settlements, we commit ourselves to sustainable patterns of production, consumption, transportation and settlements development; pollution prevention; respect for the carrying capacity of ecosystems; and the preservation of opportunities for future generations. In this connection, we shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth's ecosystem.

In the Local Government Declaration to the 2002 UN Johannesburg Earth Summit, representatives from cities around the world issued expressed similar ideas:

With half of the world's population now living in urban settlements, and with the world's population due to grow to 8 billion by 2025 ... sustainable urban management and development is one of the critical issues for the 21st century. National states cannot, on their own, centrally manage and control the complex, fast-moving, cities and towns of today and tomorrow-only strong decentralised local governments, in touch with and involving their citizens, and working in partnership with national governments, are in a position to do so.


An important issue for conceptualising sustainable urban development is to understand that cities are engines of economic power. They are the places where production is concentrated, where great wealth is generated and where most consumption takes place. They are the control centres of economic, political and media activity. National economies are embedded in and controlled from cities: 'the steady increase in the level or urbanisation since 1950 reflects the fact that the size of the world's economy has grown many times since then'. In fact, the world economy has grown no less than fifteenfold since 1950 and this has certainly helped to improve people's standard of living. But there is a price to pay: for instance, in many parts of the world forests are shrinking as the value of global trade in forest products has climbed, from $29 billion in 1961 to $139 billion in 1998. And fisheries are collapsing as fish exports rise, growing nearly fivefold in value since 1970 to reach $52 billion in 1997.

With half of humanity living and working in cities, the other half increasingly depends on them for their economic survival. They profoundly affect rural economies far beyond urban boundaries. As better roads are built and access to urban products and information systems is assured, rural people aspire to urban standards of living, and the mindset to go with them. Cities have come to define the state of human consciousness. It is therefore vital for city people to understand more clearly that the deteriorating condition of the global environment is primarily due to urban resource use.

The concentration of intense economic processes and high levels of consumption in cities stimulate their demands for resources. Urban agglomerations and their consumption patterns have become the dominant feature of the human presence on earth, fundamentally changing humanity's relationship to its host planet and ecosystems. Since most population and economic growth in the coming decades will continue to occur in urban areas, the over-exploitation of natural resources could become even more acute, unless we find different ways of managing them.

In developing countries people migrating from rural to urban areas usually expect substantial increases in living standards, which also means per capita increases in resource consumption.


Excerpted from Cities People Planet by Herbert Girardet Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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