One of the few things we can say with certainty about the near future is that it’s going to present a few challenges, including, but not limited to, climate change, rising populations, food shortages and threats of nuclear war.
But over the next few decades, two thirds of us will be living in the very places that will bear the brunt of these challenges: cities.
The world’s urban population is expected to surpass 6bn by 2045, according to the UN – and one way governments are preparing for this is by building smart cities.
While the phrase may conjure images of flying robots and hovering homes, their main purpose will be to help cope with population growth – necessary, if a little less exciting.
The Indian government announced plans in 2015 to create 100 new smart cities, leading the way with urban smartening. But while it was promised that these cities would be sustainable, new research suggests otherwise – casting doubt on the real impact of heavily funded projects both planned and underway across the world.
Professor Hugh Byrd, a specialist in urban planning from Lincoln University, spent four years analysing Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai, a 16.5-acre site at the most advanced stage of all the country’s redevelopment proposals, and hailed as the flagship for the country’s future smart cities.
Bendhi Bazaar as it will look once complete. Image: SBUT.
Sitting in the densest city in the world, Bhendi Bazaar’s overhaul will likely increase population densities from around 3,500 people per hectare to about 5,000 by replacing medium-rise housing, between three and five storeys high, with high-rise towers of 40 to 60 storeys.
“We knew that the more people that are put in a small area, the more resource consumption and waste production would increase,” Byrd says. “The more important question is whether high-rise, high density is more environmentally beneficial on a per capita basis than the medium-rise existing housing. Are they creating a bigger problem than they already have?”
Bendhi Bazaar as it used to look. Image: SBUT.
Byrd analysed Bhendi Bazaar and used his findings to predict the impact on the entire city’s proposed smart developments – and the answer to that question is yes.
In his paper, ‘Density, Energy and Metabolism of a proposed smart city’, published in the Journal of Contemporary Urban Affairs, he outlines his findings that the resulting increase in population density will indeed place more demands on resources – and they might not be fulfilled.
Byrd writes: “Urban form will inevitably grow vertically, [and this] grows dependence on centralised ‘flows’ of energy, water supplies and waste disposal.”
Bendhi Bazaar as it looks now. Image: SBUT.
The work required involves, “digging up streets for a supply network, and building new power plants, sewage treatment plants, landfill sites and new dams for water”.
Developers are taking plots of land and maximising development potential, Byrd said, but developers don’t want to pay for the rest. Increased demands, therefore, are unlikely to be properly supplied, causing outputs such as waste and carbon dioxide production to increase disproportionately.
Byrd predicts repeated blackouts, water shortages and inadequate water and sewage treatment – causing “health and accelerated climate change issues”.
The full site to be redeveloped. Image: SBUT.
The detrimental environmental impact will increase at a greater rate than the population increase, Byrd said, warning that these cities will have a significant adverse impact on the environment.
“The challenge is the same as many cities are facing,” Byrd said, adding that these problems are likely to be “amplified” elsewhere, too. The reason Byrd carried out his research was that despite the climate change challenges we face, there has been little reassurance that smart cities will help.
“We were compelled by the lack of evidence supporting environmental benefits of compact cities,” Byrd said.
Street-facing floors will offer commercial frontage. Image: SBUT.
“There are claims that compact, high density, cities are more environmentally sustainable. ‘Eco,’ ‘livable,’ ‘smart,’ and ‘green’ are just a few of the claims of compaction.”
Former Mayor Boris Johnson set out smart plans for the city in 2015, which prioritised measures to deal with increasing waste, healthcare pressures, energy supplies and travel. And building new tower blocks is a big part of London’s future.
A record 24 residential towers, all 20 storeys are more, were completed in London last year to help house the capital’s projected 10m residents by 2030. Another 455 tall buildings are planned or under construction.
But London isn’t alone. Many other countries have outlined plans to build smart cities, including in Australia, the Netherlands and France. When asked if the problems found in Bhendi Bazzar could be repeated across the world, Byrd said that the meaning of “smart” is interpreted differently in different places.
“‘Smartening’ means different things in different places. But we need to ask ourselves: when is density enough? Mumbai is an extreme example and is therefore a metaphor for the rest of us.”