What does it mean to live on an urban planet?

A marsh abuts against apartment buildings in Taiwan. Scientists have become increasingly aware that ecology, such as wetland plants, is a crucial part of the workings of cities. Photo: Erik Pihl
Oct 2016
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In this Q&A, Thomas Elmqvist talks about the upcoming book "The Urban Planet" and about why researchers need to view cities from a “systems” perspective.

This blog is part of series undertaken in partnership with Habitat X Change. Habitat X Change is a collaborative space that connects science, visualisation and design for the future of cities. It will debut during the Habitat III summit in October in Quito, Ecuador. You can read more about this event space here.

Read other stories from this series: "Science is critical for understanding the comlexity of cities," "As more power flows to cities, what role for science?" "The time for science and cities to work together is now," "What data visualization can do for science" and "What role will science play in the future of cities?"

Thomas Elmqvist. Photo: Åsa Norrman

Thomas Elmqvist has witnessed a transformation in how ecologists think about cities – shifting from a view that cities are distinctly different than “pristine” ecosystems to an understanding that ecology plays an important role in the workings of urban areas.

Elmqvist is a professor in natural resource management at the Stockholm Resilience Centre of Stockholm University in Sweden. He is also one of the editors of an upcoming book called The Urban Planet. In it, the authors call for a “systems” approach to thinking about urban areas. Cities, Elmqvist says, are complex webs of social systems, such as cultures and laws, technological systems, including skyscrapers and sewers, and ecological systems, from bacteria to trees and people. To understand a city, you need to know how these different arenas connect to and affect each other. 

The Urban Planet will come out in August 2017, but Elmqvist will be part of a pre-launch for the book at an event in the Habitat X Change space next Monday. The book emerged, in part, from a research initiative launched by Future Earth in 2014.

Daniel Strain: What is the significance of calling your book The Urban Planet?

Thomas Elmqvist: This is one way of how we view what characterises the Anthropocene. We say we will have an urban planet. This urbanisation will affect energy resources, water and food production. And wherever you live in the world, many people will have what we call an urban lifestyle, even if you live in a very rural environment. That is part of becoming connected in a globalising world.

We are exploring the consequences of this, living in an urban planet. To move toward sustainability on this urban planet, what is actually needed? What are the global consequences of urbanisation and how would these consequences influence the decision-making at the local level?

DS: One thing you emphasise is that we have to stop viewing cities as places for human society and technology, but also places for ecology, too.

TE: The ecology has been absent from that analysis, and that is one reason why we have a lot of problems in urban areas. When we look ahead, especially when it comes to understanding how we may improve health in cities and adapting cities to climate change, we need to include an ecological dimension. It’s not going to be feasible to only use hard engineering science to manage all of the adaptation challenges we have.

So, for example, it’s very well documented how much you could actually do by introducing more vegetation into urban landscapes to reduce the risk of heat waves or peaks in precipitation. It’s more sustainable than engineered solutions, and it’s more cost effective.

DS: You’ve written also about needing to break-down the distinction between what’s “urban” and what’s “rural.”

TE: We have been viewing urban and rural as two different worlds. There is a dichotomy. We would argue it's a false dichotomy. It’s an open system where you have lots of interaction. We have to explore what are the types of positive interactions that can support both the urban and the rural.

DS: So thinking about solutions that will help both?

TE: Exactly. A very common view is that there is this conflict or tension between the urban and rural. We want to turn that round to say both need each other, and there are many positive ways in which the financial strength and demands in the city can support the rural.

DS: You talk about the challenges and opportunities of cities. That isn’t something that many people in sustainability think of when it comes to urban areas – opportunities.

TM: I think a lot of these challenges are well known and described, but I think the opportunities are perhaps a bit less analysed. Some things are known: Like if you concentrate people, it’s easier to reduce per capita consumption of resources and energy, and you could reuse waste, as well. So there are a lot of benefits of concentration. We also know that when you concentrate people over time, they will become more affluent. And they will tend to consume more. It’s actually what we see in China as a result of urbanisation. There has been a huge shift to red meat consumption, and that has enormous consequences.

DS: What kinds of solutions will the book delve into?

TE: We will look at opportunities broadly, both from the ecological and technological side as well as from a social, institutional and governance perspective. One question is how we may increasingly integrate living systems with built systems, creating so-called "hybrid systems,” to increase sustainability and reduce risks.

DS: It sounds like a book that brings in a lot of different voices.

TE: There are an enormous range of disciplines and professionals involved in writing this book, giving us so many perspectives. Hopefully, it will be a very rich book and of interest for many people, whether you are working in a planning department, a university, within an NGO or you are a journalist or just a citizen interested in future urban development.

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