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The future of cities: hazards of environmental change

RIBA Trust Lecture: International Dialogues: Architecture and Climate Change. Royal Institute of British Architects, 21 October 2008.

At present we are preoccupied with a global crisis over money and credit, with prospects of a major recession. But beyond and behind it is another global crisis of immensely greater proportions. That is my principal theme tonight.

The last 250 years have seen an extraordinary acceleration of environmental change. Until recently there was controversy about the degree to which this was natural or human driven. The conclusion widely reached today is that it is substantially human driven.

There has been a succession of telling reports on the subject:

  • in particular there has been:
  • the 4th Assessment of the IPCC of 2007 and subsequent acceleration of global warming
  • the Stern Review of 2006 on the social and economic impacts of climate change
  • the work of the Climate Leaders for Global Action
  • the meetings of the G8 + 5
  • the meeting at Bali last December of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992 and the Kyoto Protocol of 1997
  • preparations for the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December 2009.

Of course climate change - or as I prefer to call it climate destabilization - is only one of the impacts which our animal species is having on the surface of the Earth and all life within it. Most things have happened in the long history of the Earth, but our current circumstances are unique. The title of a recent book put it well: Something New Under The Sun. To make sense of the scale and character of the impacts, we have to reckon not only with climate change but also with such issues as human population increase, degradation of soils, exploitation of resources, pollution of water both salt and fresh, and destruction of other living species on which we wholly depend.

Perhaps the most conspicuous demonstration of the human impact has been the growth of cities. Seen from space, they look like rapidly growing pimples on the surface of the Earth, a sort of global measles, testifying to favourable conditions and proliferation of the organisms that produce them. At night they become points of light, occasionally animated by flares that come from the extraction of the fossil fuels that make them possible in their current form. In 1900 some 15% of the world's l.5 billion people lived in cities. By 2000 city-dwellers accounted for more than 47% of a world population of more than 6 billion, and this year that proportion exceeds 50%. By 2050 some 70% are expected to do so, mostly in poor countries. What has happened?

The urban phenomenon goes back to that brief patch of time which followed the most recent spasm of the ice ages some 11,000 years ago. Hunter-gatherers began to settle in fixed communities; deforestation and farming followed; communities became villages, and villages became towns; society became more hierarchical with division of functions; and the first cities arose, probably in the river valleys of the Middle East. Such cities were immensely vulnerable to climatic and other environmental change. Some collapsed as they outgrew their resource base, whether in the form of water or food supplies, and their inhabitants were painfully dispersed. In new circumstances and more prosperous times, cities again developed, but eventually had to cope with returning vulnerability. Our situation is not too different today.

Those of us who live in industrial countries have to recognize that the last 250 years have been a bonanza of inventiveness, exploitation and consumption which may not continue. During that time humans have moved more rocks and soil, and lost and poisoned more topsoil and fresh water, than all that their predecessors ever did, and certainly more than all natural climatic variation, volcanoes, glaciers and tectonic plates brought about.

We often reckon ourselves as the most successful species ever known in the history of the Earth. But all successful species, whether bivalves, beetles, swallows, or humans, multiply until they come up against the environmental stops, reach some accommodation with the rest of the environment, and willy nilly restore some balance. That is what we now have to do.

Looking back, cities have so far had three broad characteristics. One has been called 'sacredness of place', or a relationship with divine forces through temples, cathedrals, mosques or pyramids. The second is as a place of refuge from lawlessness: simple self protection. The third is as a focus for commerce, industry, innovation and the generation of wealth. Today perhaps the third characteristic is most important. But even there change is under way. Whatever the continuing attraction of cities in many parts of the world, their attraction is diminishing elsewhere. Perhaps something of the sacred element remains, but with the growth of shanty towns and sprawling suburbs, security has become worse; and with the development of information technology, commerce, business and industry have sometimes moved out. In short the very reasons for cities are under challenge.

It is not easy to put all this together. Cities are, and have always been, creatures of their environment. Like living organisms, they absorb food, water and materials, and they emit waste of all kinds. The bigger and more complex they become, the more vulnerable they are to bad management from within and environmental change from without. They have sometimes been compared to spinifex grass in Australia that grows in circles outwards from a dying centre.

Let us look particularly at the likely impacts of climate change. Such change, which has so greatly affected cities in the past, is not necessarily slow and linear. It can indeed be relatively sudden. This has led to a new field of study of possible tipping points when one set of circumstances can switch rapidly into another. Here are some examples:

  • the state of the Amazonian rainforest;
  • the direction of the North Atlantic Conveyor current or Gulf Stream;
  • the release of methane clathrates from beneath the tundra and ocean bed, and release of methane from terrestrial sources, including peat bogs;
  • the frequency and intensity of the periodical changes of ocean current across the Pacific known as El Nino and La Nina; and
  • the state of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.

There are two jokers in the pack:

  • a sudden cooling effect (the Younger Dryas event some 12,500 years ago); and
  • a runaway greenhouse effect (Palaeocene/ Eocene 55 million years ago).

In his Review of the Economics of Climate Change, Lord Stern wrote that current increases in levels of greenhouse gas, now at their highest level for 650,000 years, could lead to a rise of between 2 and 5 degrees C in global mean temperatures between 2030 and 2060. He added that "a warming of 5 degrees C on a global scale would be far outside the experience of human civilization, and comparable to the difference between temperatures between the last ice age and today". He added that some impacts of climate change could themselves amplify warming further by triggering the release of additional greenhouse gases.

Some of his calculations have been challenged and he in return has responded to the challenges. At all events cities should be at the forefront of our preoccupations. I was a member of an Urban Task Force set up by the British government and chaired by Lord Rogers of Riverside in 1999 in which we examined the problems then facing cities in Britain, and made a variety of recommendations for the future. We then returned to the problems on our own initiative six years later, underlining the need for a new approach to urban regeneration. In broad terms we believed that our aim should be to restore communities in and out of city centres by rebuilding on old sites, protecting and enlarging green space, limiting specialization of activity (thereby avoiding dormitory versus business ghettoes), insisting on improving design on integrated planning, improving public transport, recycling wastes, reducing pollution, and generally taking better account of social as well as environmental considerations.

I cannot pretend that our answers were in any way complete. Others have attempted in different ways to point the way ahead. So far as England is concerned, urban areas account for roughly 90% of the population, 91% of economic out put, and 89% of jobs so any change in the natural environment and in particular in the climate would be of critical importance.

In general terms Britain as a whole can be divided by a line running north-west to south-east. There will be warmer summers in both, with more rainfall in the north-west, and much less, even drought conditions, in the south-east. For both winters will be warmer and wetter. Sea level rise will be coupled with isostatic sinking in the south and south-east. Together these changes will have major impacts on the economy, including cities. At present I chair the South East Climate Change Partnership in which we are trying to work out the possible effects of the next 15 to 20 years. They could be drastic.

Anyone concerned with the future and welfare of cities should ask themselves some questions. Here is a selection:


  • What are the prospects for supply from current sources?
  • What will be the effects of any change on reservoirs, storage capacity and sewage systems? Are they in the right place? Can supply match demand?


  • What restrictions should be placed on carbon emissions from cities (at present the energy already consumed by buildings worldwide accounts for around 45% of total greenhouse gas emissions)?
  • Should we move more quickly to renewable sources of energy (wind, tide, geothermal, solar, biofuels etc), and possibly new nuclear technology (including pebble bed)?
  • How much should we move from macro to micro energy systems?
  • How should we best promote energy saving in buildings and greater efficiency generally?
  • What new technologies should be applied to transport (cars, ships, aircraft etc)?

Food and materials

  • How can we ensure the supply of food if other areas get into difficulty? Even if we do not go for self sufficiency, should we do more to ensure more self-reliance?
  • Are other essential commodities going to be in short supply?


  • What should governments do to cope with sea level rise? Fortifying sea defences has to be selective. Where should the priorities be, and at whose expense?

Town planning

  • Will more controls on urbanization be necessary?
  • How should town planning, such as it is, be adapted to take account of
  • urban breakdown of all kinds?
  • buildings, architecture and future design?
  • new configurations of business and industry?
  • disposal of wastes?


  • Can we predict changes in the world of the micro-organisms on which we all depend? Cities are particularly vulnerable to epidemics of all kinds as history has shown.
  • What new as well as old diseases are likely in the changing circumstances?

In coping with this intimidating range of issues, we should not despair. There are already examples of what can be done. The first goes back to the 1960s when the government of Brazil held a competition for a master plan to expand the town of Curitiba. Particular emphasis was placed on development and control of public transport, and the supply of energy required to run a complex bus system. The result was accompanied by an action plan, labelled eco-feedback, to encourage personal involvement in recycling materials, limitation of air pollution, and use of water. The Curitiba example has already had imitators elsewhere, including the United States.

In China the construction of what has been called the eco-city of Dongtan near Shanghai is already proceeding (as it happens under the direction of a British company Ove Arup). Dongtan aims to be free of cars, to generate its own energy by a variety of means, and to be home to some half million people.

In Britain there is another example in the town of Woking, south of London. As the result of a public/private partnership, over 12 years there has been a 75% reduction of carbon or equivalent emissions; a 50% reduction in energy consumption in public buildings; and a 90% increase in energy derived from local sustainable sources. Some at least of the lessons from Woking will be applied in London by the Greater London Authority, which has already set a remarkable precedent through the application of a congestion charge on incoming transport. It also has an elaborate programme to cope with the many aspects of climate change, from energy use to building design. The London Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, whose summary draft report was published in August, is a model of its kind.

In the United States there have also been efforts to green cities, notably in Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland and even smoky Pittsburgh. Individual US states are already far ahead of the Federal Administration, and things are likely to change radically after the Presidential elections next month. In Europe the Megapoli project is about to be launched for Paris in cooperation with such cities as Mumbai, Beijing and Tokyo.

In Britain there is a long and honourable record in giving leadership on climate change back to the days of Margaret Thatcher, but here as elsewhere there has so far been more talk than action. This time with all party support, there may be practical results. There is a climate change bill now going through Parliament which will set up a Committee on Climate Change with powers to enforce respect for targets (now made more ambitious), and to manage climate actions in ways similar to the responsibilities of the Bank of England with regard to interest rates and the money market. Last month the Government created a new Department for Energy and Climate Change under the charge of Ed Balls as Secretary of State. In this way coordinated action may at last by possible.

I understand that next month there will be a major report covering measures to improve the energy efficiency of buildings. It will include not just insulation, better light bulbs, triple glazing of windows, and energy meters, but also geothermal heat pumps, wind turbines and - most intriguing - 'ecohats' to cover and protect buildings like giant umbrellas. As we are now promised more money for construction, cities may come to look and feel very different sooner than any of us thought possible. Whether these will ever be genuine British eco-towns I leave to your imagination.

Perhaps our most fundamental difficulty is the need for us to think differently across the whole spectrum, and in particular to look at current economics and the way in which we measure wealth, welfare and the human condition in terms of the Earth's good health. Here the Chinese may be in advance of others in applying the principles of what they call 'clean green growth' and in working out new methodologies of economics (fitting surprisingly well with the analysis in the Stern Review).

The trouble is that most of us still do not know where our society is going. Should our prime aim be to mitigate change or to adapt to it? The answer is, I suppose, that it should be both for the sake of future generations. Should there be a more coherent action plan for cities of a kind we have not seen so far? Do we have to build grossly inefficient tall glass monsters in our cities? Who is going to bang heads together in time to avoid such catastrophes as building on flood plains or in areas likely to be drowned by sea level rise? How can the public as well as governments be persuaded?

We all suffer from the disease of what has been called conceptual sclerosis. Little is more difficult than learning to think differently, above all when problems go to the roots of conventional wisdom. Old ideas haunt us like ghosts.

It is time now to turn to the future of our species in a world which is changing under human pressure before our eyes. Bear in mind that nearly all forecasting turns out to be wrong. We do well to expect the unexpected.

In The Meaning of the 21st Century, James Martin laid out what he saw as the prospects.

"The 21st century is like a deep river canyon with a narrow bottle neck at its centre. Think of humanity as river rafters heading down stream. As we head into the canyon, we'll have to cope with a rate of change that becomes much more intense - a white water raft trip down an unknown river with the currents becoming much faster and rougher - a time when technology will accelerate at a phenomenal rate."

He went on to identify the main challenges facing us. Some relate to the Earth as a whole: for example the natural disruptions known throughout history, volcanic explosions, earthquakes, impacts of extra terrestrial objects, changing climates, and variations in ecosystems, including patterns of disease affecting all living creatures, from mushrooms to plants and such animals as ourselves.

In the short term all this will affect human migration between countries and continents, widening divisions between rich and poor within and between countries, increasing the already high vulnerability of cities, promoting the growth of terrorism, increasing the risks of war with unimaginably horrible weapons, and exhausting often irreplaceable resources. On this reckoning we will be lucky to come out the other side of the deep river canyon with anything like civilization as we know it.

But this is not the whole story. I want now to jump a hundred years, and from this vantage look backwards. In doing so, I shall assume (I hope correctly), that humans will have faced up to and coped with at least some of these problems. People are not stupid. So what will the world look like?

First they are likely to be living in a more globalized world of rapid communication. Ideas, units of information - or memes - will pass almost instantaneously between countries, communities and individuals. The wiring of the planet with fibre optics, cellular wireless, satellites and digital television is already transforming human relationships. For the first time there will be something like a single human civilization.

Human numbers in cities or elsewhere will almost certainly be reduced, but some people will live longer, bringing its own train of problems. Their distribution will be different. It has been suggested that an optimum population for the Earth in terms of its resources would be nearer to 2.5 billion rather than - as now - over 6 and a half billion, or even 9 billion later this century.

Cities will be very different as communities become more dispersed. The daily tides of people lowing in and out of them for work will be much reduced. Energy and transport systems will be decentralized. Archaeologists of the future may even wonder what all those roads were for. There will certainly be a horrible mess for our successors to clear up.

Then there are other developments in information technology. They raise the question of evolution itself. At present we can alter isolated genes while disregarding the totality of what genes can do. James Martin has distinguished what he has described as primary, secondary and tertiary evolution. He suggests that:

"Primary evolution is the mutation and natural selection of species - a glacially slow process ...

Secondary evolution refers to an intelligent species learning how to create its own form of evolution. It invents an artificial world of machines, chemical plants, software, computer networks, transport, manufacturing processes and so on. It learns how to manipulate DNA...

Tertiary evolution refers to something which is just beginning on Earth. An intelligent species learns to automate evolution itself."

The idea of automated evolution needs some explanation. In a phrase it represents a vast acceleration of change. James Martin writes that with the machines we envisage today, it could be a billion times faster. "The techniques of evolvability will themselves evolve."

Other applications of information technology range far beyond enumeration. Already chips have been inserted into humans for a variety of purposes. We can even insert extra chromosomes in the knowledge that they would not be heritable.

On the one hand humans may thereby be liberated from many current drudgeries. Soon houses may be able to clean themselves, robots may produce meals on demand, cars may drive under remote instruction, and evolution of desirable characteristics could even be automated. All this seems unimaginable when so many still have to trudge miles to collect fuel wood and water.

On the other hand humans could well become dangerously vulnerable to technological breakdown, and thereby lose an essential measure of self-sufficiency. Already dependence on computers to run our complex systems, and reliance on electronic information transfer, are having alarming effects. Here industrial countries are far more vulnerable than others. Just look at the effects of single and temporary power cuts. More than ever individuals feel out of control of even the most elementary aspects of their lives.

The implications for governance reach equally wide. In some areas good regulation will be more important than ever, particularly in nano technology. In the words of a recent book, we have to recognize that most things fail, whether they be organisms or human institutions. Already there is a movement of power away from the nation state: upwards to global institutions and corporations to deal with global issues; downwards to communities of human dimension; and sideways by electronic means between citizens everywhere.

For the longer term I hesitate to speculate. As Peter Ward once wrote: "The future stretches before us not as one long dark tunnel but as a series of vignettes of variable clarity, like a long avenue punctuated by street lights of differing luminosity." Cities will rise and fall. Tectonic plate movement will shift the relationship between land and sea. Changes in oxygen levels in the atmosphere may affect the viability of life itself. The human species may even change its shape, assuming some are still alive to tell the tale.

For example, given the evolutionary significance of our brains and the current hazards of childbirth, we might imagine a sort of human marsupial in which women gave birth earlier in the reproductive process, and developed a kind of pouch. As Thomas Hobbes said, as he approached death: "I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark." That is true for all of us, however we measure and look forward to the future.

Supposing our species fell victim to some natural disaster, as other species have done in the past, how long would it take for the Earth to recover from the human impact? How soon would our cities fall apart, the soils regenerate, the animals and plants we have favoured find a more normal place in the natural environment, the waters and seas become clearer, the chemistry of the air return to what it was before we polluted it? Life itself, from the bottom of the seas, to the top of the atmosphere, is so robust that the human experience could become no more than a short and certainly peculiar episode in the history of life on Earth.

Above all let us remember how small and vulnerable we are as creatures of a particular environment at a particular moment in time. We are like microbes on the surface of an apple, on an insignificant tree, in an insignificant orchard, among billions of other insignificant orchards stretching over horizons beyond our sight or even our imagining.


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