Shanghai at night

How are the big cities approaching rapid urbanisation?

Cities all over the world are experiencing extremely fast rates of urbanisation as rural populations flock to them for work. Shanghai, New Delhi, Mexico City and Mumbai are growing the fastest, so how are they coping and what can they learn from established cities?

We are now living in the ‘Urban Millennium’ – a moniker coined by the United Nations in its State of the World 2007 report. What this means is that more than half of the global population now lives in cities and towns, a tipping point we reached in 2007. By 2050, the global population will have grown to around nine billion and 75 per cent of us, 6.75 billion people, or thereabouts, will be living in urban centres. But long before that, in 2025 just 37 cities will house 10 per cent of the world’s population, which will be about 800,000 million people.

In emerging economies in Asia and Latin America, the extremely rapid rates of urbanisation witnessed in Western countries in the 20th century is not slowing down. Which is not to say that cities in Europe and North America are not also seeing continued population growth, they are just not on quite the same scale.

Martin Powell, global head of Siemens’ Urban Development division, which focuses on the sustainable development of urban infrastructures through the use of green technologies, said: “We need to think hard about how we plan and build these cities and create an environment where people can thrive and enjoy their lives.”

A balancing act

When you look at the current megacities in the world, Manila, Tokyo, Jakarta, New York, for example, it’s safe to say that not all of them will be providing that kind of environment. That’s not to say that they can’t, or won’t, it just hasn’t happened yet. As cities such as Shanghai, New Delhi, Mumbai and Mexico City look to the future and want to ensure that they get this right, what can they learn from established urban dense cities?

Powell believes it’s all about balance. “Established urban dense cities have learned to balance business space, residential space and green space to meet the expectations of its citizens, which includes cleaner and greener transport choices, good quality housing and access to well designed recreational spaces within the city. Emerging cities have the opportunity to set a strong planning vision manifested in a long-term strategic plan – just like the London Plan or the Regional Planning Association’s plan for Greater New York – this will ensure sensitive growth that keeps these cities thriving.”

But as the population of these cities grows and the need to provide housing and improved infrastructure increases, can these concerns really take priority? In many towns and cities around the UK, Europe and North America, you see poor quality housing flung up in an attempt to solve a problem quickly rather than in the best way possible. Badly planned transport systems result in overcrowded trains, air pollution and traffic jams. Green spaces are not used as intended as they are dirty and often dangerous.

Emerging cities are doing their best to learn from the mistakes of the megacities that came before them. They are thinking of long-term sustainability alongside quick solutions for housing, communications, public service and transport needs.

Projects are in motion to improve, manage and future-proof Mexico City’s water supplies; Mumbai’s road and rail network is being transformed while certified green buildings with residential, public and commercial spaces all co-located are being erected; the digital networks in Shanghai are being upgraded; and New Delhi’s infrastructure is undergoing modernisation and extension.

As these projects are implemented, environmental improvements are already being witnessed. “Some of the big cities experiencing rapid urbanisation, including Mumbai, Shanghai and Mexico City, are actually beginning to show strong signs of decoupling growth from environmental measures,” says Powell. “We are seeing a reduction in car use, a reduction in both CO2 and ecological footprint, and even housing floor space, despite the GDP growth in these cities. They are realising that to protect their competitiveness and to keep it attractive for businesses, and for residents, then they need to focus on good environmental outcomes.”

Residents and business focus

While the need to improve environmental performance has to be a priority – and judging by results like these, it’s being treated as such – Powell believes that the real focus for urban planners has to be the residents of these cities. “Urban planners need to prioritise the citizen. They need to focus on developing thriving communities that are well connected through good transport options, that have a good mix of residential and industrial space to connect the people to the jobs, and safe green spaces.”

For any city to thrive it has to be able to supply work for people. These developing urban dense cities need to ensure that they are an attractive destination for local and global companies to set up shop. Powell agrees: “Planners today need to think about how they can connect all three elements and ensure their city can compete globally and attract the people to live there and the businesses to invest in their city. Any spatial plan needs to be mindful of using its assets, incentivising the right businesses and connecting them to the skills of the people. It also needs an energy masterplan that ensures provision of affordable low-carbon energy and a clean air plan that protects, maintains and enhances a healthy city.”

No mean feat for these cities to ensure they meet the needs of all these different elements. However, while there is a need for a holistic view of how it all needs to work, it is the individual components that will add up to create the kinds of cities that deliver on all objectives.

Keeping the water clean

When you live in a world where clean water always comes out of the tap, not many of us stop to think about how it gets there and how supplies are managed to ensure that it doesn’t run dry. However, at Desalitech that’s all they think about. The company was included in the presitigious 2013 Global Cleantech 100 for its innovative clean water solutions. Its next-generation closed-circuit desalination (CCD) system uses water more efficiently, reduces emission of brine waste, and lowers power consumption using standard off-the shelf components. It has just partnered with Veolia Water Solutions to deliver these systems in Mexico and beyond.

Featuring new CCD technology, Desalitech’s ReFlex RO systems maximise the use of water resources, reducing disposal costs by up to 70 per cent and energy consumption by 35 per cent, and converting wastewater from a costly problem into a new water resource.

The systems use a single stage of membrane elements and concentrate recycling in semi-batch operation to achieve high recovery. The combination of varying concentration and high cross-flow reduces scaling and fouling potential so up to 97 per cent recovery can be reached in single-stage systems, versus the 75 per cent target of most traditional multi-stage RO systems. Desalitech’s executive vice president, Richard L Stover, says: “Conventional RO, which is 60 years old, is inefficient. Water is lost in the process, a great deal of waste is generated and excessive energy is used. These water, wastewater and energy struggles are emerging as bottlenecks for industry all over the world.” 

So what does all this mean for Mexico City? The Desalitech solutions will be used initially in the food and beverage, pulp and paper, and power industries. “Our plan is to help industry address water shortages through more sustainable use of diminishing water supplies and beneficially treating wastewater,” Stover says.

With industry better managing its wastewater to recycle and re-use it, and thereby lowering the demand for new cleanwater supplies, there’ll be more for the municipal authorities to use for homes and public service buildings such as schools, hospitals and prisons. It also ticks the box for making Mexico City an attractive place to invest, as what company isn’t looking to cut costs while improving its green credentials?

Everyone on the move

In Mumbai, moving people from home to work and play and back again has been a bit of a problem as the city’s population has boomed, from 12 million in 1990 to 20 million today. Every day 11 million people use public transport in the city so the Maharastra State government is aiming to resolve its transport issues through a range of capital intensive and high-profile projects. Of these, the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP), the Mumbai Metro Master Plan (MMMP) and the Mumbai Monorail are the bigger players.

The MUTP has been part-funded by the World Bank and delivered in two stages. In Stage 1 of the MUTP over 15km of the city’s road network was widened and six new bridges were built, along with two flyovers and one double-decker flyover. Stage 2, which is just kicking off now, is all about the railways. New lines are to be added, existing ones extended and the whole network is to be converted from DC to AC power. Stations will be improved, modern EMUs purchased and maintenance facilities built.

A side-effect of all these railway developments has been the displacement of 18,500 families and 1,500 shops, so the city has also had to manage a major resettlement project. While for some this was not necessarily a good thing, thousands of the city’s residents that were living in slums alongside the railway lines have been re-housed in permanent dwellings and given the titles to their new homes.

A major tool in resolving the city’s transport woes is the MMMP. It will extend services into previously unconnected parts of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region and relieve the pressue on the existing suburban rail system, which currently carries 52 per cent of the 11 million people travelling on public transport every day.

The length of the system will be extended by almost 150km in eight transport corridors – assuming that the cash comes through as this element is dependent on private finance. This will be through a mixture of elevated and underground lines that connect to existing suburban lines. The first stage of the project – Metro Line 1 – is almost complete. It connects the city’s east and west suburbs with the centre and has cut journey times by as much as 50 minutes.

The third prong of the resolution, the Mumbai Monorail will reach where the other prongs cannot and help reduce road congestion. It can carry 7,500 commuters per hour in each direction and parts of the city not connected by the suburban rail system or Metro rail will be connected by the monorail.

All of these projects are combining advanced engineering with new technologies to move Mumbai towards that goal of being a city where residents can thrive and enjoy life. Siemens’ Powell believes that technology will make this easier to achieve. “Technology is buying us valuable time to enhance and automate existing infrastructure and make it more efficient, thus allowing time for the longer-term investments in energy and transport infrastructure that need to be made to meet the rapid rates of urbanisation in cities all over the world.”

Managing the digital world

Everyone wants to be connected all of the time and China has become the world’s largest wired nation thanks to fast growth in a short timeframe. In 2005, only one in 10 Chinese homes had a landline telephone but jump forward just eight years and over 350 million smartphones were purchased in 2013. Until recently, all mobile and wireless data provision was dominated by the three state-owned giants: China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom. All that is set to change, however, as T-Mobile announced in early May that it will be the first mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) to enter the Chinese market. It won’t be on its own for long though as several other company’s have been issued MVNO licenses and will be launching services soon.

Shanghai is the country’s largest and most populous city, with just under 24 million people estimated to be living there at the end of 2013. Thus, it will consume a huge amount of the data provided by any company.

Something that China Mobile recognised when it made the city one of the first to get the new 4G network, which it pilot launched in December 2013 before rolling out to another 100 or so cities in February 2014. It built 1,000 TD-LTE basestations in Shanghai so that the city’s smartphone users could get 4G network coverage in most areas.

The Digital City Shanghai Project is transforming networks and communications through four main focus areas: spatial data infrastructure, city informatisation, the Shanghai city grid, and the Shanghai logistics information platform. It also includes the development of application systems for telemedicine, e-commerce, e-government, distance learning and city management.

A Wireless City website offers Shangahi residents access to a range of urban information services covering government affairs, public utilities and personal life.

Projects like this are just the start though, says Powell: “The concept of using technology to improve the way we live in our cities is happening now. It helps us get to work more easily and more quickly, it is making our environment safer, it is making us use less energy and generally less resources. But technology will play a much bigger role in future society.”

New homes and businesses

All of the cities seeing huge numbers of migrants from smaller towns and rural areas arriving have to build homes quickly, but they also need to make sure that what they build is energy efficient and sustainable so that they don’t create further problems down the line.

In Mumbai, the Tata Housing Development Group has several green building projects on the go. One of these is the Amantra development, which is a pre-certified green building complex with features that include cool air funnelled into homes, east-west orientation to provide ample light and south-facing sun-shading fins to keep the heat out.

The development includes a jogging track, yoga rooms, tennis courts, swimming pool, baseball court and a health club with steam rooms and sauna. There’s also a children’s play area and a party room meaning it’s not just a housing development but somewhere for residents to come together and create a community.

In New Delhi, which is home to around 1 per cent of the 22 million people that live in the wider Delhi metropolitan region, Terminal 3 at Indira Gandhi National Airport received a Gold LEED rating for new constructions. Not only has it increased traveller handling capacity by an additional 34 million people a year, much of the construction was done with recycled materials and it uses battery-powered vehicles to transport passengers. It also has 310 rainwater harvesting pits and a water treatment and management system that recycles all water used in the building.  
Currently under construction by the New Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation are several projects covering residential, commercial, industrial and public buildings, all of which are being constructed to international environmental standards.

One of these is the Knowledge Based Industries (KBI) Park. The 83-acre site will house companies in the IT and creative industries and is expected to provide employment for 85,000 people once completed. It will provide jobs for a further 70,000 during the construction phase. The complex will also include housing for KBI workers and will connect to the city and airport by monorail and the metro line.

Other projects in progress include new housing for the urban poor (over 13,000 built to date and another 30,000 or so in the pipeline), hospitals, schools, transport depots and sewage treatment plants.

These fast-growing cities are working hard to meet the immediate needs of their ever-expanding populations while also trying to ensure that what they are creating will continue to do so into the future. Much of the development is firmly inside the tried and tested box of what has gone before. Some engineers and city planners are trying to get out of that box and make us think a bit differently about how our cities could work.

Cities of the future

Projects all over the world have been looking at what our cities could look like in the future. From the Venus Project, which not only proposes new circular cities but a whole new way of living and constructing our socities, through to Earth Day’s Green Cities that envisages living and breathing buildings that react to our needs, solar-powered public transport and high-speed long-distance travel in pods through depressurised tubes.

It seems that Powell could be right when he says that what we’re building now is just buying us time for the future; a future where we could make some of these ideas a reality. He says: “How far technology could take us is for someone else to speculate.”

It’s taking those speculations and trying to turn them into solutions that will be the answer to making our urban dense cities truly sustainable for the future, as well as a nice place to live.

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