Metropolis 2.0: Cities’ Power to Shape a Greener Future

octobre 22, 2017

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The current rate of urbanization is one of the global megatrends, which will manifest itself in many of the challenges faced in the upcoming decades. UN reports estimate that nearly 70% of the world’s population will be urban by 2050.[1] The way in which cities deal with this rapid rate of urbanization will determine whether international objectives such as Sustainable Development Goal 11, aimed at making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable, will be achieved. Urbanization has further impacts on many more of the goals defined in the UN 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. Achieving these goals will not only affect the quality of life in the respective metropolitan areas, but it also has indirect effects on challenges such as security and migration issues all around the world.

Sustainable Cities Are Not a Contradiction

Metropolitan areas are not known for their sustainability or ecological attention. Still today, many inhabitants of larger cities in countries of the Global South have a life expectancy of about half what they are in well-governed cities. If challenges of future urban development are not going to be adequately addressed, they could create massive problems associated with poverty, disease and environmental catastrophes.[2]

Properly managed, however, urbanization prospects present various opportunities for sustainable economic growth and human development. In addition to the potential for new sustainable infrastructure such as buildings and roads, urbanization will also create a demand for a whole range of new services. With many people moving to cities, new models of urban management related to energy and water supply as well as transport and security is needed.[3]

Potential of Metropolitan Areas

Urban areas feature characteristics with positive effects for sustainable growth. High population density makes it easier to ensure universal provision of infrastructure and services. A larger market potential in cities provide additional incentives for most businesses. Finally, cities as small entities can pass legislation faster and more effectively than their larger and tardier national counterparts.[4]

Current developments in the US underline the potential that subnational levels of government have in providing new solutions when problem solving on other political levels seems to have been blocked. As a reaction to the planned US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the State of California has decided to advance its clean energy program.

Cities have recently started to acknowledge their role as new, powerful actors in the global playing field when it comes to fostering sustainable approaches for their challenges. With the goal to address climate change issues on a city level, major cities have established the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group to collaborate and share knowledge for sustainable action. Another similar network is the UN HABITAT Cities and Climate Change Initiative. Such initiatives need to be multiplied: cities should embrace their role more and become aware of their potential to bring about change.

Urban Mining as One Approach for More Urban Sustainability

Cities should identify the opportunities and the untapped potential that increased urbanization brings. This includes fostering the promotion of concepts such as the so far, largely unnoticed concept of urban mining.[5] Urban mining describes all activities and processes of reclaiming compounds, energy, and elements from products, buildings, and waste generated from urban material flows.[6] It provides economic incentives and has various positive effects on the environment and on social life.[7]

The economic benefits from mining of waste generated by the urban population are projected to be substantial. The intrinsic material value of global waste from electric and electronic appliances alone is estimated to be around 48 billion euros annually.[8] Positive external effects on the environment include lower CO2 emissions because of shorter transport distances. Also, recycling facilities close to human settlements serve as an automatic surveillance of environmental standards.[9]

Need for Increased Inter-Urban Cooperation

Achieving low-carbon, sustainable growth in urban areas remains an incredibly complex task. Cities need to actively advance sustainability independent of national policies. They can achieve their sustainability potential through increased network building with other cities, as the aforementioned examples have shown. Knowledge as well as technology and best-practice exchange are needed for implementing complex concepts to achieve a sustainable development path.



© Lauren Parnell Marino. No changes.

Under CC BY-NC 2.0 License.



[1] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2014). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights (ST/ESA/SER.A/352).

[2] Daniel F. Runde, „Urbanization, Opportunity, and Development,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2015, accessed September 2, 2017,

[3] Daniel F. Runde, „Urbanization, Opportunity, and Development,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2015, accessed September 2, 2017,

[4] Hubert Heinelt and Wolfram Lamping, „Städte im Klimawandel: Zwischen Problembetroffenheit und Innovationserwartung“, Forschungsjournal Soziale Bewegungen 27 (2014): 79-89.

[5] Matthias Buchert, Veronika Ustohalova, Georg Mehlhart, Falk Schulze, and Rebecca Schöne, „Landfill Mining – Option oder Fiktion? “ Darmstadt: öko-intitut e.V., 2015.

[6] Peter Baccini and Paul H. Brunner, Metabolism of the Anthroposphere: Analysis, Evaluation, Design (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2nd Edition, 2012).

[7] Rachna Arora, Katharina Paterok, Abhijit Banerjee, and Manjeet Singh Saluja, “Potential and relevance of urban mining in the context of sustainable cities,” IIMB Management Review (2017): 1–15.

[8] Kees Baldé, Feng Wang, Ruediger Kuehr, and Jaco Huisman, The Global E-Waste Monitor – 2014 (Bonn: United Nations University, 2015).

[9] Paul H. Brunner, “Urban mining: A Contribution to Reindustrializing the City”, Journal of Industrial Ecology 15 (2011): 339–341.

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Rafael Widmer

Rafael Widmer studies Environmental Policy, International Affairs & Governance at Sciences Po Paris and the University of St. Gallen. He is working for the World Resources Forum, a Multi-Stakeholder Platform for resource efficiency and circular economy. Rafael is currently writing his thesis on ecopreneurship in countries of the Global South.