03/01/2016 11:35 EST | Updated 03/02/2017 05:12 EST

Our Future Depends On Building Smart, Sustainable Cities

heyengel via Getty Images
Vancouver skyline at sunset as seen from Stanley Park, British Columbia, Canada

Through many months, probably even years, our office kitchen lived in a state of abject squalor. In the fridge, cartons of milk congealed into blue cottage cheese. Humous grew a layer of thick, rich fur. And at the back, black slimy matter spread like something from a 1950s sci-fi horror movie. The shelves and kettle and sink and counter-tops fared little better. Old packets of muesli gathered dust and softness. Badly washed cups listed in the sink, never to be reused.

Then one of our team decided enough was enough. She was going in. Inspired by her guts and can do attitude, volunteers joined the cause. And soon a small army amassed, equipped with scrubbers and cleaning products. Shiny became the fridge. Clear stood the counters. Our recycling bins filled, and were emptied. And a system of responsibility for individual items and kitchen cleanliness was introduced. In the months since, we have never looked back. Our communal team kitchen remains a joy. We even bought a much loved coffee machine.

The morals are familiar -- people look after things when they're already in a good condition, and neglect things that have fallen into disrepair. Sometimes it only takes one person's example to make a difference. And of course -- better results are achieved through good teamwork.

But how does this relate to future cities and urban development? Currently 54 per cent of the world's population live in cities -- over 3.5 billion. Cities account for about 70 per cent of energy related greenhouse gas emissions (more per capita than rural areas). And in 2014, global CO2 emissions, which account for approximately 65 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, were nearly 36 giga-tonnes. Cities are heavily responsible for solid waste as well. One estimate suggests current waste from cities alone would fill 5,000 km of rubbish trucks per day; and that global urban waste is set to triple by 2100 on a business as usual basis.

Something is wrong when offices and schools have to be closed due to dangerous levels of air pollution -- a reality some are already living with.

As with kitchen maintenance, the imperative to develop and implement sustainability into our new cities, and renew and regenerate our failing ones, is self-evident. Only 10 people use our kitchen; 1.4 million people are moving into urban areas each week, so that by the end of this century 85 per cent of people will live in cities. The UN's medium projection for the global population in 2100 is 10 billion (with a low of six and high of 16), which means 8.5 billion in cities (thankfully for me the maths on that wasn't too taxing).

Responding to the implications of these statistics is a complex, multi-faceted challenge. Developing energy efficient buildings using smart architecture, design, and engineering will be important -- whether it's metering or insulating or underground heating. Policies will need to incentivise best practice or be punitive against the worst. There's also how we manage waste and transport -- if we do all this, yet commute long distances in our comfy single occupancy vehicles, we still have a problem. And the method of generating power into the grid matters -- coal, gas, nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, biomass -- as does the efficiency of the grid itself. Something is wrong when offices and schools have to be closed due to dangerous levels of air pollution -- a reality some are already living with. Breathing this level of pollution is like wiping your finger through the black slime at the back of our kitchen fridge, then licking it.

Addressing this issue also calls for an approach that combines municipal, regional and national levels working together. It requires innovation and commitment in science, architecture, engineering and logistics. It requires finance. And more challenging still, it requires all these disciplines to collaborate across policy, academic and professional silos. Reassuringly, this cross-silo approach is already emerging, whether it's energy management in the campus at the University of British Columbia or the UK's Future Cities Catapult.

Valuable collaboration is taking place across geographies as well. If we are to be successful, we'll need to exhibit similar behaviour to the public's approach to web development -- willing and open partnerships and knowledge sharing. Groups such as the C40 cities initiative, which includes London and Vancouver; or the Under 2 MOU, including Bristol and British Columba, are already bringing together those trying to do something. At the Globe 2016 Conference, the UK and Canada are holding a forum on urban sustainable development to discuss and share best practice.

And of course it will require vision. Future cities are likely to look radically different from the ones we live in now. Homes may be connected to offices, to supermarkets or orchards, restaurants and hospitals. Schools may be virtual. Buildings may be heated by our waste. Urban parks and green spaces may be everywhere. The atmosphere is the limit. All of which means, importantly, they will be cities we want to live in, which we want to look after and care for. It's no coincidence that the environmental movement finds many of its roots in Vancouver -- I am writing this looking out across the city and waterway of English bay, across Stanley Park to the snow-capped forest covered mountains of the north shore.

When we inherit something in a beautiful condition, or when we create something new, or even when we take something in a bad condition and thoroughly renew it; from that moment on we look after it. By developing smarter cities, producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions and waste, we create better lives for those of us inhabiting it. Given there may well be 8.5 billion of us in there, this could be quite important.

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook


Drone Images Highlight Climate Change