Ecosystems around the world are in decline. Interventions in cities have the greatest potential to alter this trend because they contain over half of the world’s population and although cities cover only 2% of the earth’s surface area, they consume 75% of its resources and have other profound impacts on the environment.

Large cities have a massive impact on the environment through consumption of resources (i.e. energy, water, minerals) and production of more waste than they have the capacity to absorb – transporting it to other areas, thus producing greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to climate change. On a global scale, human populations have been consuming resources beyond the earth’s capacity to replenish them since the 1970’s.

The most affected by these environmental impacts are the world's urban poor, especially those living in slums. For instance, many slum dwellers in Africa have been driven off the land and into cities by advancing desert frontiers and famine caused by drought. Upgrading and maintaining critical infrastructure in these fast-growing urban areas is often given lower priority by local governments as the focus turns to coping with immediate threats such as rising sea levels, floods or droughts. This cycle of underinvestment in infrastructure forces people to further degrade the environment, such as harvesting dwindling forest cover for much needed fuel.

Urban sprawl is also a trend related to rising urban migration that has a big environmental impact. Living farther and farther away from the urban core and its services requires people to commute longer distances, requires higher fuel consumption and thus produces more greenhouse gases and air pollution. In addition, water and sewage must be piped longer distances. Cities are beginning to rethink this land development pattern and turn towards higher density and more efficient land use. Strategies to achieve this include developing underused land in urban centres and building intensively near existing resources and services, especially the public transportation hubs.

Besides land use, cities have the capacity to have a huge impact on environmental sustainability through innovations in many other areas, such as energy, water and waste management. Cities can reduce energy and water consumption by promoting the use of new building techniques and technologies. They can adopt solid waste management strategies that encourage waste reduction, recycling, landfill gas capture and gasification that turns waste into energy.

Cities are where these environmental impacts are concentrated and therefore contain the best opportunity for change. Key to our progress is that we recognize the limits of our natural systems and make this central to our decision-making. Individual and collective action that leads to the protection of our natural resources is necessary to create the public demand for policy makers to participate.

Cities + The Environment

Over 50% of the world’s 6.6 billion people now live in cities and this is expected to climb to 75% by 2050. (United Nations)

Urban populations are growing at 2.4% annually, more than three times the rate for rural areas. Over the next 30 years, 93% of this urban growth will occur in developing countries.

Urban areas account directly for 50-60 percent of human greenhouse gas emissions. (UNHabitat)

Stats + Figures


Translator: Jane McRae (Vancouver, Canada), Sustainable Cities Program Director - PLUS Network, International Centre for Sustainable Cities

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