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Global Approaches to Urban Regional Planning

Cities are so enmeshed in their surrounding regions that it no longer makes sense for them to be the sole focus of sustainable planning.


That’s according to a new study published in Nature. Authors Richard T. T. Forman & Jianguo Wu put forward a very strong case that, for people and nature to thrive, “the arrangement of land systems and water across the urban region (typically 70-100 kilometres in radius) must be managed holistically.” In this scenario, growth will be concentrated in four places: the outer suburbs, existing low-density sprawl areas just beyond the suburbs, satellite cities, and towns and villages within adjoining farmland.

This analysis is based on estimates that the earth’s population by 2030 will rise to about 8.5 billion people. That’s 1.1 billion more people than currently live on earth. Such expansion alters what’s called a city’s “big seven:” natural vegetation, agricultural land, clean water, jobs, housing, transport, and communities. Urban planning has the potential to slow degradation and even to improve the population density situation. The authors note that, unfortunately, “protecting natural and agricultural land, water bodies, and biodiversity are rarely top priorities for municipal governments.” Instead, urban planners typically focus on creating jobs, housing, transport, and economic growth.

Urban regional planning is scarce today, and environmental issues tend to be addressed near the end of planning rather than as an essential, integral element. “Built structures should be fitted around, not on, valuable natural resources,” according to the study’s authors.  

This new approach to planning cities considers which areas are best placed to support higher populations without greatly increasing the already heavy ecological footprint on earth. The Nature authors outlined three major areas of focus to make a cultural shift to urban regional planning.

Develop in the Most Suitable Areas

No longer are populous, resource-poor, or biodiversity hotspots appropriate target areas for development. Instead, the study outlines, places that have warm and moist climates conducive to growing crops, such as grassy and forested lands in temperate and tropical regions, should be areas for future population distribution and expansion. This will reverse policies that cover or pollute once-valuable natural resources and inundate the expanding population with solid waste, wastewater, heat, and pollutants.

Manage the Relocation of New Arrivals

Compact settlements along the urban fringe and in surrounding satellite cities and towns should replace the current practice of concentrating people in cities or areas of urban sprawl. The result will be sustainable communities that limit the loss of valuable land. Also, as we turn away from historic settlements, including along coastal waterways, we can reduce the number of urban poor at risk from the most devastating effects of climate change: heat waves, droughts, floods, and bad air quality.

Increase Global Food Production Efficaciously

An area about the size of Greenland, or “a few hundred million new agricultural hectares,” will be needed to feed the increased population by 2030. One billion new people require lots of new areas of cultivation.

What are the Potential Impacts of Urban Regional Planning?

With urban regional planning, areas of population settlement will more closely resemble humans’ original settlements. Early settlements were organized on good agricultural soil with nearby natural vegetation and a body of fresh water. If we return to such settlement types, no longer will…

  • good agricultural soil be covered with houses;
  • expanses of natural ecosystems shrink and become fragmented and degraded;
  • semi-wild wooded recreation areas be out of the proximity of the city’s people; and,
  • wells lower the water table, dry out streams and wetlands, and make wildlife scarcer.

It will take a different mindset to make urban region planning commonplace. But the shift will require new experts to speak on behalf of environmental concerns: landscape ecologists, water quality and quality hydrologists, agricultural soil scientists, environmental economists, transportation engineers, and ecological community developers. With those experts as strong voices, institutions will be rise up to model new projects and possibilities toward sustainable population growth through urban regional planning.

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