The Growth of Cities Involves Moral Questions as Much as Infrastructural Ones

Jonathan Gornall

AFP Photo: Karim Sahib

How can we make our cities more sustainable – and what exactly do we mean by “sustainable”? These are timely questions that will be considered in February in Abu Dhabi, chosen to host the 10th session of the United Nations’ World Urban Forum.

This is the first time that what is billed as “the world’s most important conference on cities,” held every two years since 2002, will be hosted in an Arab country. It is, says the UN, “a significant opportunity” for the capital of the UAE to “showcase its achievements … in promoting and implementing sustainable urban development.”

But to what extent can the development of Abu Dhabi – or any of the great cities powered into existence in the Gulf by the discovery of oil or those elsewhere conjured into being by 20th century globalized trade or, again, any of the large cities of Europe and North America – be described as sustainable? The World Urban Forum, run by UN-Habitat, is an opportunity to ask hard questions about the role of the city, the engine of development for global economies since the industrial revolution set the world spinning toward environmental catastrophe, but those questions are unlikely to be asked in February.

Instead, under discussion will be the New Urban Agenda, a document adopted by the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in 2016. The agenda sings the praises of cities as engines of “job creation, livelihood opportunities and improved quality of life.” All people, it says, should “have equal … access to the benefits and opportunities that cities can offer.”

But in its enthusiasm for the ability of the city to solve multiple social problems, UN-Habitat turns a blind eye to its toxic impact. Even as it acknowledges the looming catastrophe of climate change, it insists “cities can be the source of solutions to, rather than the cause of, the challenges that our world is facing today.”

The hard reality is that cities and the vast numbers of people they attract generate waste and pollution and demands on power and water on a scale that the Earth can no longer handle, and which – despite the best intentions of the UN’s World Urban Forum – no amount of clever town planning can hope to offset.

As cities go, Abu Dhabi and its neighbor Dubai are attractive examples, built with an eye to inward investment and tourism and packed with facilities that make them attractive to a diverse global community. But from the pools and the malls and the air-conditioned residential towers to the high-end SUVs, every energy-hungry element of life in this and every other Gulf city whispers the truth – that this hot, parched location was one of the last places on Earth you would find a modern version of a major city, were it not for the discovery of oil.

That is a conundrum. For how can anyone be denied the opportunity to economically scale up? Do the older cities of the world – from Beijing to New York – get a free pass just because of tenure? Then again, “cities” first emerged in this very part of the world – from the alluvial plains of the Tigris and Euphrates emerged the world’s first recognizable cities more than 5,000 years ago.

Cities, whether built in the 19th century and expanded haphazardly ever since, or developed more recently and with more thought, are focal points for all the environmental ills that plague the planet today. Cities occupy only 2 percent of the Earth’s land, but are responsible for 60 percent of all energy consumption and three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions and waste.

This is going to get only worse. Half of the world’s population already lives in cities and the number is growing daily – UN-Habitat predicts cities will see more than 2.5 billion new residents by 2050.

Few cities have expanded as rapidly as those of the UAE and the other Gulf states and one chart speaks graphically of the inevitable consequences – the per-capita consumption of electricity between 1971 and 2014 in the six GCC nations and, for comparison, the European Union.

Electricity consumption per head of population in the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait had already outstripped that in the EU by the end of the 1970s and has climbed stratospherically ever since. Since 2009, in fact, per-person consumption of electricity in the EU started to fall, down to 5,900 kWh by 2014, while it has risen to 9,440 in Saudi Arabia, 11,260 kWh in the UAE, 15,200 kWh in Qatar and Kuwait and 19,590 kWh in Bahrain.

At the February conference in Abu Dhabi, the experts will talk earnestly about such subjects as “Driving Sustainable Urbanization Through Culture and Innovation” and “Frontier Technologies and Sustainable Cities.” Even as they speak, however, the city in which they are meeting will be growing daily, attracting more flights, throwing up more buildings, importing more cars and food, generating more electricity and desalinating more seawater. Even then, it pales in comparison to urban centers in, for example, China. The greater Chongqing area grew by about 1 million people in two years from 2011, rising to nearly 28 million souls.

The truth that no one will be speaking at the World Urban Forum is this: there is, and never can be, any such thing as a sustainable city. All we can hope to do if we are to avoid “sleepwalking past the point of no return,” as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the world it was doing at the start of the COP25 climate-change meeting in Madrid this month, is to halt the expansion of our cities in its tracks.

But that, in a world driven by the high-revving engines of perpetual economic growth and development, is never going to happen. And therein lies a moral question: why should the emerging world temper its ambition for prosperity when developed nations are already done with their own rapid growth? Perhaps that should be the starting point of questions posed during the UN confab in February.


Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.