Dealing with the downsides of rapidly developing cities

Article by Natasha Stokes
traffic jam in Bangkok, Thailand
Image credit: Shutterstock

From the transitioning markets of India and China to established urban centers in Europe and the United States, rapid urban development has created challenges for the world’s most dynamic cities.

Air quality is a crippling concern throughout the urban sprawl of Delhi, while in Beijing, rising car use, booming factories, and a reliance on coal contribute to pollution that often closes schools and workplaces. In the bustling metropolises of London, New York and San Francisco, inflated housing markets are pricing out scores of people.

“Emerging cities are struggling to cope with the unprecedented rates of growth they are seeing in the economy and in the population,” says Jeremy Kelly, Director in Global Research, JLL. “In mature gateway cities such as London, Sydney or Hong Kong, the challenge is that demand for real estate is outweighing supply.”

Overcoming gridlock

As urban populations soar, traffic congestion is a growing concern on every continent. Rush hour traffic in metropolitan Manila consistently ranks among the most congested in the world with journeys taking up to several hours across town, while the UK is the second-worst country for traffic, with 11 of its cities ranking in the world’s most-clogged – and costing local businesses over £750 billion in the process.

Urban traffic, like industrial zones, is a major contributor to air pollution, with more than 80 percent of city-dwellers worldwide exposed to pollution levels over World Health Organization limits. London’s air quality hit its highest danger alert earlier this year, while Los Angeles’ long battle against smog hasn’t kept it out of the U.S.’s most polluted regions.

Geographical location can also increase the challenges of urban development. For example, Hong Kong’s soaring smog levels are often the result of northerly winds from the industrial zones of China.

Meanwhile, for cities in flood zones, rising sea levels add an extra layer of complication, Kelly says. Severe flooding is common in the fast-growing cities of Chennai and Jakarta, where unplanned urban development means the city infrastructure is unprepared for extreme weather.

Managing the boom

Many cities are tackling two issues at once – traffic and pollution – by reducing the number of cars on the roads.

Beijing, Paris and Manila are among the cities that restrict driving based on license plate numbers on days when air quality is poor. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, increasingly congested roads from rising car and motorbike use have catalyzed government plans for metro systems. Hanoi’s government is additionally offering a $200,000 prize for ideas to reduce traffic jams.

In Madrid and Oslo, cars will be entirely banned from city centers in the next few years, while Copenhagen illustrates the power of the plan: The Danish capital began introducing car-free zones in the 1960s, and today, it has one of the lowest car-ownership rates in Europe, with over half the population commuting by bicycle.

“Ultimately, managing urban growth is really about long term planning and investment in new infrastructure to combat congestion and pollution,” Kelly says.

London, Hong Kong and Singapore are examples of cities with significant peak-hour traffic, yet efficient public transport systems with swipe-and-go payment help prevent these cities – and their citizens – from grinding to a standstill.

In Turkey and China, home to some of the world’s most polluted cities, lawmakers are scaling back reliance on coal. Istanbul has banned the use of its most polluting forms, while Beijing recently shutits last major coal power plant, with the government investing in city-wide installation of electric heating.

“China’s lawmakers are recognising they need to reduce local air pollution – and as a result, the country is beginning to take the lead in sustainable practices,” Kelly says.

Promoting sustainable growth

Some emerging and established cities are tackling growth with sustainable – and innovative – solutions.

To house its growing population, Amsterdam’s government is reclaiming land in order to build islands for new homes and zoning “self-build” regions for citizens to assemble their own flat-pack, affordable housing.

In Colombia, investment in a sustainable transport system has helped improve social equality in Bogota, while Medellin transformed from one of the world’s most dangerous cities into a model of sustainable urban development, with a free cable car system, escalators connecting the city’s regions, and bike share and metro systems.

Yet not all property developers in emerging markets focus on the long-term benefits of sustainable design over the short-term gain of quickly building property to meet skyrocketing demand.

“Emerging cities have a unique opportunity to develop their urban environments using green, efficient and more technologically advanced methods,” Kelly says. “Governments are slowly enacting and enforcing sustainable building regulations, but this needs to be matched by a deeper commitment from the real estate industry to embrace sustainable practices.”

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