Sure, smart cities are compact. But are they really that smart?

The side view of how Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai will look after its full regeneration. Image: SBUT

One of the few things we can say with certainty about the near future is that it’s going to present a few challenges, including, but not limited to, climate change, rising populations, food shortages and threats of nuclear war.

But over the next few decades, two thirds of us will be living in the very places that will bear the brunt of these challenges: cities.

The world’s urban population is expected to surpass 6bn by 2045, according to the UN – and one way governments are preparing for this is by building smart cities.

While the phrase may conjure images of flying robots and hovering homes, their main purpose will be to help cope with population growth – necessary, if a little less exciting.  

The Indian government announced plans in 2015 to create 100 new smart cities, leading the way with urban smartening. But while it was promised that these cities would be sustainable, new research suggests otherwise – casting doubt on the real impact of heavily funded projects both planned and underway across the world.

Professor Hugh Byrd, a specialist in urban planning from Lincoln University, spent four years analysing Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai, a 16.5-acre site at the most advanced stage of all the country’s redevelopment proposals, and hailed as the flagship for the country’s future smart cities.

Bendhi Bazaar as it will look once complete. Image: SBUT.

Sitting in the densest city in the world, Bhendi Bazaar’s overhaul will likely increase population densities from around 3,500 people per hectare to about 5,000 by replacing medium-rise housing, between three and five storeys high, with high-rise towers of 40 to 60 storeys. 

 “We knew that the more people that are put in a small area, the more resource consumption and waste production would increase,” Byrd says. “The more important question is whether high-rise, high density is more environmentally beneficial on a per capita basis than the medium-rise existing housing. Are they creating a bigger problem than they already have?”

Bendhi Bazaar as it used to look. Image: SBUT.

Byrd analysed Bhendi Bazaar and used his findings to predict the impact on the entire city’s proposed smart developments – and the answer to that question is yes.

In his paper, 'Density, Energy and Metabolism of a proposed smart city', published in the Journal of Contemporary Urban Affairs, he outlines his findings that the resulting increase in population density will indeed place more demands on resources – and they might not be fulfilled. 

Byrd writes: “Urban form will inevitably grow vertically, [and this] grows dependence on centralised 'flows' of energy, water supplies and waste disposal.”

Bendhi Bazaar as it looks now. Image: SBUT.

The work required involves, “digging up streets for a supply network, and building new power plants, sewage treatment plants, landfill sites and new dams for water”.

Developers are taking plots of land and maximising development potential, Byrd said, but developers don’t want to pay for the rest. Increased demands, therefore, are unlikely to be properly supplied, causing outputs such as waste and carbon dioxide production to increase disproportionately.

Byrd predicts repeated blackouts, water shortages and inadequate water and sewage treatment – causing “health and accelerated climate change issues”.  

The full site to be redeveloped. Image: SBUT.

The detrimental environmental impact will increase at a greater rate than the population increase, Byrd said, warning that these cities will have a significant adverse impact on the environment. 

“The challenge is the same as many cities are facing,” Byrd said, adding that these problems are likely to be “amplified” elsewhere, too. The reason Byrd carried out his research was that despite the climate change challenges we face, there has been little reassurance that smart cities will help.

 “We were compelled by the lack of evidence supporting environmental benefits of compact cities,” Byrd said.

Street-facing floors will offer commercial frontage. Image: SBUT.

“There are claims that compact, high density, cities are more environmentally sustainable. ‘Eco,’ ‘livable,’ ‘smart,’ and ‘green’ are just a few of the claims of compaction.”


Former Mayor Boris Johnson set out smart plans for the city in 2015, which prioritised measures to deal with increasing waste, healthcare pressures, energy supplies and travel. And building new tower blocks is a big part of London’s future.

A record 24 residential towers, all 20 storeys are more, were completed in London last year to help house the capital’s projected 10m residents by 2030. Another 455 tall buildings are planned or under construction.

But London isn’t alone. Many other countries have outlined plans to build smart cities, including in Australia, the Netherlands and France. When asked if the problems found in Bhendi Bazzar could be repeated across the world, Byrd said that the meaning of “smart” is interpreted differently in different places.

“‘Smartening’ means different things in different places. But we need to ask ourselves: when is density enough? Mumbai is an extreme example and is therefore a metaphor for the rest of us.”

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Seven climate change myths put about by big oil companies

Oil is good for you! Image: Getty.

Since the start of this year, major players within the fossil fuel industry – “big oil” – have made some big announcements regarding climate change. BP revealed plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by acquiring additional renewable energy companies. Royal Dutch Shell defended its $1-$2bn green energy annual budget. Even ExxonMobil, until recently relatively dismissive of the basic science behind climate change, included a section dedicated to reducing emissions in its yearly outlook for energy report.

But this idea of a “green” oil company producing “clean” fossil fuels is one that I would call a dangerous myth. Such myths obscure the irreconcilability between burning fossil fuels and environmental protection – yet they continue to be perpetuated to the detriment of our planet.

Myth 1: Climate change can be solved with the same thinking that created it

Measures put in place now to address climate change must be sustainable in the long run. A hasty, sticking plaster approach based on quick fixes and repurposed ideas will not suffice.

Yet this is precisely what some fossil fuel companies intend to do. To address climate change, major oil and gas companies are mostly doing what they have historically excelled at – more technology, more efficiency, and producing more fossil fuels.

But like the irresponsible gambler that cannot stop doubling down during a losing streak, the industry’s bet on more, more, more only means more ecological destruction. Irrespective of how efficient fossil fuel production becomes, that the industry’s core product can be 100 per cent environmentally sustainable is an illusion.

A potential glimmer of hope is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process that sucks carbon out of the air and sends it back underground. But despite being praised by big oil as a silver bullet solution for climate change, CCS is yet another sticking plaster approach. Even CCS advocates suggest that it cannot currently be employed on a global, mass scale.

Myth 2: Climate change won’t spell the end of the fossil fuel industry

According to a recent report, climate change is one factor among several that has resulted in the end of big oil’s golden years – a time when oil was plenty, money quick, and the men at the top celebrated as cowboy capitalists.

Now, to ensure we do not surpass the dangerous 2°C threshold, we must realise that there is simply no place for “producers” of fossil fuels. After all, as scientists, financial experts, and activists have warned, if we want to avoid dangerous climate change, the proven reserves of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies cannot be consumed.

Myth 3: Renewables investment means oil companies are seriously tackling climate change

Compared to overall capital expenditures, oil companies renewables’ investment is a miniscule drop in the barrel. Even then, as companies such as BP have demonstrated before, they will divest from renewables as soon as market conditions change.

Big oil companies’ green investments only produce tiny reductions in their overall greenhouse gas emissions. BP calls these effects “real sustainable reductions” – but they accounted for only 0.3 per cent of their total emissions reductions in 2016, 0.1 per cent in 2015, 0.1 per cent in 2014, and so on.


Myth 4: Hard climate regulation is not an option

One of the oil industry’s biggest fears regarding climate change is regulation. It is of such importance that BP recently hinted at big oil’s exodus from the EU if climate regulation took effect. Let’s be clear, we are talking about “command-and-control” regulation here, such as pollution limits, and not business-friendly tools such as carbon pricing or market-based quota systems.

There are many commercial reasons why the fossil fuel industry would prefer the latter over the former. Notably, regulation may result in a direct impact on the bottom line of fossil fuel companies given incurred costs. But climate regulation is – in combination with market-based mechanisms – required to address climate change. This is a widely accepted proposition advocated by mainstream economists, NGOs and most governments.

Myth 5: Without cheap fossil fuels, the developing world will stop

Total’s ex-CEO, the late Christoph de Margerie, once remarked: “Without access to energy, there is no development.” Although this is probably true, that this energy must come from fossil fuels is not. Consider, for example, how for 300 days last year Costa Rica relied entirely on renewable energy for its electricity needs. Even China, the world’s biggest polluter, is simultaneously the biggest investor in domestic renewables projects.

As the World Bank has highlighted, in contrast to big oil’s claims about producing more fossil fuels to end poverty, the sad truth is that by burning even the current fossil fuel stockpile, climate change will place millions of people back into poverty. The UN concurs, signalling that climate change will result in reduced crop yields, more waterborne diseases, higher food prices and greater civil unrest in developing parts of the world.

Myth 6: Big oil must be involved in climate policy-making

Fossil fuel companies insist that their involvement in climate policy-making is necessary, so much so that they have become part of the wallpaper at international environmental conferences. This neglects that fossil fuels are, in fact, a pretty large part of the problem. Big oil attends international environmental conferences for two reasons: lobbying and self-promotion.

Some UN organisations already recognise the risk of corporations hijacking the policy-making process. The World Health Organisation, for instance, forbids the tobacco industry from attending its conferences. The UN’s climate change arm, the UNFCCC, should take note.

Myth 7: Nature can and must be “tamed” to address climate change

If you mess with mother nature, she bites back. As scientists reiterate, natural systems are complex, unpredictable, and even hostile when disrupted.

Climate change is a prime example. Small changes in the chemical makeup of the atmosphere may have drastic implications for Earth’s inhabitants.

The ConversationFossil fuel companies reject that natural systems are fragile – as evidenced by their expansive operations in ecologically vulnerable areas such as the Arctic. The “wild” aspect of nature is considered something to be controlled and dominated. This myth merely serves as a way to boost egos. As independent scientist James Lovelock wrote, “The idea that humans are yet intelligent enough to serve as stewards of the Earth is among the most hubristic ever.”

George Ferns, Lecturer in Management, Employment and Organisation, Cardiff University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.