In a recent article of the National Geographic Magazine, Robert Kunzig makes the case that smart cities could be the solution for our growing environmental and social pains. As a matter of fact, dense cities tend to emit less greenhouse gas emissions than the national average. It is particularly true for the United States, consuming 25 tons of CO2 equivalent per person on average compared to 10 tons in New York City. It is not the case for China, consuming 4 tons per person on average compared to 11 tons in Beijing.
China is experiencing an important phase of urbanization. Annualy, twelve million chinese people move from rural to urban areas. That is equivalent to a new city of the size of Beijing (picture right) every year! As a result, China has taken the lead in terms of cities with over one million inhabitants: 89 in China, 46 in India and 42 in US. However, this puts a lot of pressure on providing basic food and water services. If designing smarter cities makes sense, leaving rural development behind does not appear as a sustainable proposition.
Urbanization continues in North and Latin America, Europe and Australia at a steady pace. The rapid growth is taking place in Africa and Asia, which are lagging behind. They will pass the 50% threshold by 2030 according to the UN Population Fund Agency (UNFPA). UNFPA correctly predicted that one of two inhabitants would already live in a city by 2011. UN Habitat thinks that urban living is a good thing. They call governments to embrace it as it is a non reversible evolution related to industrialization.
China is adapting. Shenzhen is an example of a city that has integrated urban agriculture in its plans. Once a small farming community, it is now a fast growing urban area due to its designation as an open economic zone. In response to the large population increase, the Chinese government has supported urban self-sufficiency in food production. The model is facing challenges with the increase of pollution. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in transport and energy production remains a critical issue.
Shenzhen is now part of the first mega-region with more than 120 million inhabitants (picture above - courtsey of Nasa) living in a continuous urban area, spanning from Hong Kong to Ganzhou. Shenzhen's original model could be an example for the bigger urban region to preserve agricultural production within its bounds. The traditional model in Europe is to have large farms around the main cities, as it is the case in Paris and Berlin.
The migration of population in the US, from the center to the outskirt of cities, has posed new challenges. Cities like Los Angeles used to be surrounded by orchards in the South but Orange County has been absorbed part of the mega city. In addition, the consumer demand for fresh produce all year long has forced food distribution to import and process food from around the world.
Transport of fresh produce to cities has a significant carbon footprint. As a result, we start to see a push to grow produce locally within the city limits as in Montreal where Lufa Farms cash crops up on the roof. A recent report from the Urban Design Lab at Columbia University in particular highlights the potential for agriculture within New York City.
The cities of Hong Kong and Shenzhen are also partenering in urban planning to look at high-efficiency crop yielding in downtown areas. The Langrab City is a farm project commissioned by the Shenzhen/Hong Kong Biennale of Architecture/Urbanism and located on Shenzhenwan Avenue (Nanshan), a busy shopping district in the city of Shenzhen.
Urban agriculture is not new. It was part of the planning of Mach Pichu for example. One can consider it as the first smart city to some extent. Its location in a remote mountainous location still defies our logic. The state of the world population and the growing size of mega cities are such that urban planning will continue to challenge scientists and urban planners alike.
The main danger of lack of planning is to see the emergence of "two cities" within a mega city: a moder city with large slums within its bounds. This has been a growing problem in India especially, with important slum population in cities like Mumbay. It is also an issue in Brazil (Rio de Janeiro) and Kenya (Nairobi).
Countries in Africa is also increasing farming within cities to fight hunger. But they have to face more dire energy, water and capital challenges due to limited infrastructure. This results into the consumption of their natural resources at an unsustainable rate. It is the case in Kenya for example where logging has been banned since 1999.
So smart infrastructure and sustainable farming is inter-related as massive populations go through as phase of industrialization. Europe has done it long ago and it is interesting to note that agriculture remains the largest budget item in the European Commision, way ahead of research and development. TheUK has fought time and time again to reduce its importance but without success. France and Germany see local agriculture as a matter of national security and are willing subsidize it.
It has created unfortunately a number of errands in Europe, food waste and unfair price pressure on emerging countries. Recently the European Union reformed farm aids to promote sustainable pratices but did not cut its budget. Members of the French Ministry of Agriculture explained to me that the farming is a way to maintain the beautiful landscape. France and Italy remain the most visited countries in the world, and the income derived by tourism in rural areas cannot be understimated.
Smart cities are definitely the solution to absorb the growth of population. But the limitations on water and other resources require innovation beyond city clusters and better land management in rural areas. It is not a good investment to leave poor rural areas behind in the long-term as they often host important resources. Smart cities must include neighboring rural areas in their planning in order to be sustainable.