Planting the seeds of sustainable growth in our cities

sustainable growth, smart city

In this article, George Adams discusses how cities are the engines powering the development of the human race: How does sustainable growth factor into this vision?

According to a World Bank study, an incredible 70% of the world’s cities outstrip their national gross domestic product.

By 2050, 600 cities will account for 60% of global domestic product and house 70% of the global population, which is forecast to be in the region of 10 billion.

However, this rapid development is not without cost. As it stands, cities currently house half of the world’s population, yet they produce almost three quarters of its waste. This might come as a surprise to city dwellers, given their access to public transport, modern buildings and comprehensive waste recycling services, but cities pollute our atmosphere disproportionately to the number of people who inhabit them.

cities pollute our atmosphere disproportionately to the number of people who inhabit them

Studies have shown that as global population increases, cities’ population grows at nearly 40% higher. As such, the question must be how we make our cities more sustainable so as to support business and people whilst preserving our planet.

Thinking circularly

The first step we must take is to strive to change attitudes, namely to a circular economy way of thinking when it comes to design and procurement. This means considering the whole lifecycle of the object when designing our buildings, infrastructure and machinery. The reasons for doing this are clear.

Taking our buildings as an example, we’re only constructing between one and 2% of our building stock as new each year. When we get to 2050, approximately 70% of the buildings we use today will still be in use. As such, there is an urgent need to consider how these buildings are being used today, how they will be utilised in the future, and how they will have to adapt to changing environmental and legislative influences.

A design-led circular economy approach to developing sustainable smart cities must permeate everything from city planning to procurement. Integral to this change is a shift in how city authorities view return on investment. Too often, the prime focus is placed on the initial capital expenditure and not on costs over the lifetime of the solution. Once we take into consideration wider benefits such as sustainability, efficiency and profitability, a design-led circular approach to upgrading or refurbishing buildings throughout their lifetime can achieve a better ROI, increase the value of assets, reduce operational costs and significantly reduce the consumption of natural resources

Rock down two-(way) electric avenue

When it comes to reducing our environmental impact on the world, the electrification of transport is typically cited as one of the first ports of call. Notwithstanding the fact that efforts to provide the infrastructure for electric vehicles need to gather pace if the government is to meet its targets, it is also critical that we make the right technology choices too.

Transport is a critical aspect of creating efficient, healthy cities. The move to EV and the ban of diesel/petrol vehicles by 2040 is a laudable objective, but the rate of change in infrastructure and availability of electric vehicles is far too slow. However, improving local bus, tram and train facilities has proven highly successful in some significant cities around the world, such as Vienna, London and Stockholm.

Live clean and prosper

Cities operate in a global marketplace, competing to attract the world’s largest and most innovative companies, or become home to the next leading financial centre. For such businesses and institutions to take root and prosper, they in turn need the best and brightest people to come and work for them. In addition, these organisations and people create tremendous revenues, which benefit the city and entire communities living within it. This symbiotic relationship between business, institutions and people is the allure of creating a prosperous city, especially as cities contribute to about half of the global GDP

The top businesses and people now have a lot of choice as to where they can reside. Meanwhile, changing attitudes to work-life balance and greater awareness of the dangers of pollution have changed what people want out of the places in which they live, especially driven by greater use of mobile technology and connectivity.

Currently, it is thought that air pollution could cost the UK economy £18.6 billion by 2035, creating health complications for people and causing time off work. Improving air quality has to be a primary consideration of smart cities if they are to provide people with a place in which they want to live. However, we must link this to the increasing urban heat island effect; the two together contribute major risks to public health.

air pollution could cost the UK economy £18.6 billion by 2035

Smart cities should not only implement green legislation, they also need to become green spaces. Increasing green space is a necessary step in tackling the urban heat island effect, whereby radiation is trapped in urban spaces raising temperatures to above normal levels. Green spaces also reduce pollution, filter particulates and have been shown by numerous studies to improve social wellbeing and increased urban efficiency

A general industry challenge is ensuring business continuity, which includes being resilient against climate change. Rising and falling temperatures and sea levels pose numerous risks to employees and infrastructure that could detrimentally affect operations. The more sustainable our cities are, the more resilient they are to local climate challenges. As such, sustainable cities become more attractive places for businesses to set up shop and for people to work and live.

When creating smart cities, many city authorities are understanding the importance of being sustainable to the wider objective of creating a thriving, prosperous city. This is clear in the Smarter London plan announced last year, or in efforts by American cities to pursue sustainability targets despite the lack of appetite to do so at a national level.


George Adams

Director of Energy & Engineering



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