Search By Topic


What role will science play in the future of cities?

This blog is part of a series undertaken in partnership with Habitat X Change. Habitat X Change is a collaborative space that connects science, visualization 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 here.

You can also read other stories from this series, including "The time for science and cities to work together is now" and "What data visualization can do for science."

This October Quito, Ecuador, will become a city of cities. For one week, tens of thousands of visitors, including leaders from nations and municipalities spread across the globe, will stream into the capital for a common purpose: to discuss the future of cities.

The influx from Paris, Beijing, Nairobi and more is part of a landmark summit called the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, or Habitat III. The chief goal of the conference will be the passage of the New Urban Agenda, a document that seeks to guide how nations will manage the growth of their cities over the next two decades. It will focus on building urban areas that are equitable and just.

Habitat III is a testament to the growing prominence of cities on the global stage – and the recognition among both politicians and scientists that what happens in cities matters for the world. Cities produce roughly 80% of the planet’s GDP but also emit nearly the same percentage of its carbon emissions. The increasing attention to cities has also left researchers asking some weighty questions: What will the role of science be in a post-Habitat III world? And does the globe need a formal, recognised body for coordinating, assessing and communicating the state of research on cities?

By 2050, nearly two-thirds of the world's population will live in cities like Shanghai (shown here), according to projections from the United Nations. Photo: andrius.v via Flickr

Proponents of such an effort say that an institution of this sort would help to legitimise urban research. It would also foster better understanding the complexities of cities, from mountain Quito to coastal Jakarta. Urban areas face an array of serious issues, from poverty and crime to smog and inadequate supplies of clean drinking water, but are also sites of remarkable innovation. The evolving role of research on cities is a topic that participants will take up later this week at a scientific workshop in London organised by the International Council for Science (ICSU), the City Leadership Initiative of the University College London and other partners.

“Cities don’t all stay the same. They change. Conditions change,” says Eugenie Birch, a professor of urban education and research at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, which is also a partner on the workshop. “So we constantly have to be alert and looking at what we’re doing in terms of the knowledge on which we base our public policy.”

Changing status

And it’s a relatively new idea in sustainability science – that cities aren’t just places of environmental degradation and pollution. They can also be centres of opportunity for sustainable development. Science, in turn, has a role to play in the process of building cities that are more sustainable, healthy and just, Birch says. She leads the General Assembly of Partners for Habitat III, a group that brings together diverse interests, including academics and disability rights advocates, to provide guidance for the New Urban Agenda. Researchers, she says, can address an important uncertainty: “Under what conditions does urbanisation promote or challenge sustainable urban development?” That means understanding how people use energy in cities, how they get around, how planners design neighborhoods and a lot more.

But studying cities is also a labyrinthine process. As anyone who has battled traffic in Mumbai or navigated the London underground knows, cites are “complexities of complexities,” says Susan Parnell, an urban geographer and professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Making a city run smoothly requires input from diverse professionals, from specialists in transportation and sanitation to urban planning and health.

But in many cases, those experts don’t work together, Parnell says. And no formal scholarly community exists to link the work of many urban researchers on a local or global level. As a result, solutions for urban problems that cross those different arenas may be harder to come by. It’s also difficult for researchers to get a big picture view of the problems affecting separate cities in similar ways.

India's largest slum, Dharavi, sits on the outskirts of Mumbai and houses up to one million people in an area of two square kilometres. The growth of such "informal" settlements has created new challenges for sustainable development. Photo: lecercle via Flickr

It’s these challenges that have led many researchers like Parnell and Birch to propose developing a major, international body to assess research on cities – and to join the efforts of all of those professionals. Some experts in urban policy and research have dubbed the idea an “IPCC for cities,” referencing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This scientific body regularly assesses the state of research on the planet’s climate and sets priorities for future studies. The Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) plays a similar role around issues like the loss of pollinators and the degradation of natural ecosystems.

No one’s sure what an IPCC for cities would look like or who would take part. But it would likely draw in scientists and other urban professionals who would review the sprawling body of studies, data and other knowledge available on cities – then publish reports to capture what researchers know and, perhaps more importantly, don’t know about the problems facing cities and their possible solutions.

“There’s so much information out there at the moment, and people have got such different kinds of jobs that without some authoritative mechanism that seeks to distill and communicate essential messages, I think you’ll end up with over-generalised policy commitments that don’t actually shift practice,” Parnell says.

Enrique Silva agrees. He is a a fellow and associate director of the Program on Latin America and Caribbean at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Massachussets. “Without better knowledge and without better documentation of what’s going on, it will be difficult to pinpoint what the problems are,” Silva says. “And if we can’t pinpoint the problems, the nature of the solutions we develop may be flawed or at best inefficient and at worst counter-productive.”

Getting such a global effort off the ground, however, won’t be easy.

Challenges ahead

In part, that’s because doing anything on the international level takes time, funding and buy-in from nations around the world – all of which have different attitudes toward cities and how much autonomy they should have in setting and implementing policy.

Momentum toward an IPCC for cities may be building with Habitat III as a catalyst. The Republic of Korea, for instance, has already expressed strong support for the idea. The original draft of the New Urban Agenda also included a recommendation to form such a body, naming it the Multi-Stakeholder Platform. That recommendation was taken out of the draft that UN member nations will be approving in Quito, based in part over concerns about how much the platform would cost. Still, the New Urban Agenda will urge those involved in setting urban policy “to generate evidence-based and practical guidance for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.”

And that’s a good start, says Anne-Hélène Prieur-Richard, director of the Future Earth global hub in Montreal. When it comes to a global body for urban research, the New Urban Agenda “doesn’t tell us what kind of animal it will be, but it gives us the mandate to start working on it,” she says.

That work has already begun. From 29 to 30 September, urban specialists will assemble in London to discuss the shape than an IPCC for cities could take. Prieur-Richard says that she doesn’t think that those in research and policy should try to build the international body from nothing. She notes that it took IPBES, which was officially established in 2012, seven years to get off the ground. “The challenges of cities can’t wait for seven years,” she says.

Beyond Habitat III, there are other international policy processes that address cities, the most notable being the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They are a series of 17 targets that will specifically guide nations in developing in sustainable and fair ways. One of those goals, the eleventh, focuses on cities. An international body for urban research could, potentially, align with this effort, Prieur-Richard says.

Enora Robin also thinks that it’s best to build off of existing efforts. She is a PhD candidate at the City Leadership Initiative at the University College London and investigates the feasibility of an IPCC for cities. In partnership with Susan Parnell and others, researchers in the initiative have undertaken an effort to map the major players in collecting and disseminating research on cities. They include efforts like Global Urban Commons and the World Council on City Data. At this point, “No one really knows what’s out there already,” Robin says. “To start with what already exists and asking how we could put it together would be more productive than building something from scratch.”

In the end, such an effort would be crucial simply for making the point that cities are important, says Enrique Silva of the Lincoln Institute. Today, the priorities for international science tend to stem from what nations or regions want to see. An IPCC for cities would allow places like Boston, Manila or Quito – not to mention smaller towns – to come front and center.

As an urban planning specialist, “cities aren’t on different people’s radars the way they are on my radar,” Silva says. “In that sense, if a formal structure would legitimise cities and urbanisation as a global, national and local priority, then I’m totally for it.”

During Habitat III, Future Earth will formally launch a new Knowledge-Action Network focused on cities. This research collaboration will generate the knowledge needed to better understand the challenges facing urban areas around the world and to build solutions for more sustainable cities. You can learn more about this effort or get involved here.