Building the BRICs: How can developing countries plan the cities of the future?

Mumbai's Dharavi slum in 2007. Image: Getty.

The UN estimates that more than 6bn people will live in cities by the year 2045 – compared with fewer than 4bn today. But these huge numbers hide subtle complexities. Every city is growing at a different rate, in its own distinctive direction – each one is an open, complex system, which generates cultural, economic and technological innovation by combining new materials with unique histories.

Clearly, there’s no single road map for the future which all cities can follow. But if urban areas are to grow sustainably, as well as coping with scarce resources, global warming, inequality, epidemics and natural disasters, then a global strategy is in order. To this end, in October, scholars, politicians, business people and community representatives gathered for the UN’s Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, to agree on the “New Urban Agenda”.

Where to begin?

For those attending Habitat III, Brazil, India, China, and South Africa provide some of the best case studies of extreme division and extraordinary innovation in cities. Despite having very different histories, cities in these countries share several features, which make them useful when we want to compare how similar urban processes are playing out around the world.

Indian cities by night. Image: sjrankin/Flickr/creative commons.

Brazil urbanised much earlier than most of Asia and Africa, absorbing more than 80m people into its cities between 1970 and 2000. China has recently caught up; as of 2015, 56 per cent of its population was living in urban areas. India and South Africa are soon to follow: according to UN data from 2014, almost 40 per cent of India’s population, and 71 per cent of South Africa’s, will reside in urban areas by 2030.

Cities in these countries are experiencing a period of great change. Part of this is political: South Africa held municipal elections in August this year, followed by Brazil in October, while in India – which is on a five-year municipal election cycle – elections are often held when politically convenient. In each case, different political promises can invoke a wide range of possible urban futures.

The global shift of mega-events to BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa) countries over the past decade has also caused an enormous upheaval in host cities. Examples include the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 South Africa World Cup, the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, the Sochi (Russia) Winter Olympics of 2014 and, of course, the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.

These events have been catalysts for all kinds of harm and glory. While cases of Zika virus alarmed residents and visitors in one part of Rio, the new Bus Rapid Transport system improved transport links for the growing population in another.

A Chinese nail house. Image: Triplefivedrew/Flickr/creative commons.

Such contrasts are common in these countries. From slum evictions in South Africa, to modernist master-planning in Brazil; from experiments in participatory budgeting in more than 100 Brazilian cities to “nail houses” resisting mass development in China – these countries’ cities are often labelled both “problem case studies” and “great urban innovators”.

Taking the lead

Yet while these nations’ cities are attracting fresh attention, this hasn’t necessarily given urban leaders and citizens more power to predict, understand or determine their future. In particular, municipalities continue to rely heavily on national resources to cover local expenses, while mayors are bound to follow elaborate national regulations.

As cities grow, there’s pressure for city leaders to involve local communities in decisions. While this is ideal in theory, it can be unpredictable in practice. Local discussions can easily become a stage for the strongest voices or would-be politicians, or residents can retreat from such meetings entirely, to avoid confronting local economic and political powers, especially if residents live in informal houses or have irregular jobs.

Easy for some. Image: ☻☺/Flickr/creative commons.

From Bangalore to Cape Town, Shanghai to Sao Paulo, it is not uncommon for residents to start such meetings by stating their inability to participate. Many consultations take place during working hours, far removed from the site of interest. Some are presented in technical terms, formally offering a channel for participation but actually encouraging silence or absence from some members, while over-empowering others.

For example, a meeting in a city hall or public building to discuss an informal settlement can discourage participants from attending if they feel they do not possess the right clothes. From stigmatisation to transportation, problems with participatory practices run deep; it takes a lot more than simply offering people a channel to voice their concerns.

Locked in?

To really understand how a city will develop, it’s crucial to understand its “lock-ins” and “path dependencies”. Lock-ins are features of the built environment, which limit the potential of a city. For example, in Mumbai, regulations to facilitate the development of luxury condos in much of the city centre has generated infrastructure such as roads and car parks which work well for car drivers, but block possibilities for imagining public and green transport systems from the ground up.

Similarly, “path dependencies” occur where the history of the urban form inhibits some kinds of change and promotes others. For instance, in Rio, the long-established divisions between the city’s formal and informal settlements limit, but also shape, any future changes to the city.

Scientific research offers the opportunity to bring a greater understanding to the constantly shifting urban form. To that end, the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council has created a series of collaborative research projects, in partnership with China, Brazil and South Africa. Such research can reveal the metabolism of the city, mapping and measuring the lock-ins and path dependencies which structure the interdependent web of water, food and energy systems.

The urban web. Image: robertotaddeofoto28/Flickr/creative commons.

It can also analyse the way that transport systems can reproduce either segregation or integration, and how gendered divisions determine which places are safe or dangerous – and for whom. Enormous amounts of data, generated by citizens’ own behaviours, can be used to interpret the city as it evolves. Of course, all of these advancements trigger ethical questions, which demand longer reflection.


While every city’s future is unique, we can enrich our understanding with collaborations that explore the diversity of cities and draw comparisons across the world. Yet scientists face the challenging task of reconciling the long-term horizons of a city with the political motivations of urban democracy, which measure the future in electoral cycles.

Researchers have an obligation to highlight the trade offs, compromises and alternatives that ongoing elections and global UN summits might generate for each country’s unique urban future. They must bring short term and long term possibilities to the surface, and mitigate between them, if we’re ever to get a clear vision of the future of cities. The Conversation

This article is part of a series on publicly-funded UK research at the UN Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador. It is a collaboration between Urban Transformations Network – UK Economic and Social Research Council (UT-ESRC) and The Conversation. This is a modified version of an article that appeared on BBC Brasil.

Michael Keith is director of COMPAS, and Andreza de Souza Santos and Nicholas Simcik Arese are post-doctoral research associates, at the University of Oxford.

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

 
 
 
 

Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.


Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.