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The Future of the City: Clean and Green

[Editor's note: The theme of the Winter 2010-2011 issue of World Policy Journal is “Megalopolis: The City of the 21st Century.”  We asked experts, policymakers, and writers from around the world to answer this question:  “In the future, what will our cities look like?”] 

By Peter Fox-Penner

The cities with the brightest future are those that have realized that operating as pure resources sinks is incompatible with economic performance and a high quality of life.   Instead they are focused on smart-growth policies and “zero carbon” or “zero resource” operations.  This implies, among other things, local and renewable energy sources, sustainable and relatively local food supplies, and less space devoted to pavement and individual transport.  Cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, and the future Masdar Initiative in Abu Dhabi are among those best positioned for the future.

Future cities in developing nations will generate much more of their own energy building skins and urban open spaces – although some power will come from distant generators as well.  The local grid will be much smarter, empowering customers with more information on their energy usage so that they can use electricity more wisely.  As this technology spreads, city-wide grids will operate efficiently, more reliably, and at lower costs.  Electric motors will slowly but steadily displace gasoline engines, while individual vehicles will increasingly guide themselves on automated roads.  In addition to the slow natural pace of turnover, the barriers to this future are economic and political, not technological.

In developing nations, where urbanization is accelerating rapidly, the future of cities is even more dependent on economic and political change.  Hopefully, these cities will evolve directly into the kind of sustainable, smart-growth cities found in developed nations, skipping the era of inefficiency and sprawl.  If not, these cities will pose enormous environmental and political challenges with impacts far beyond their city limits.

Peter Fox-Penner is Principal and Chairman Emeritus of The Brattle Group, a consultancy firm based in Washington, D.C., specializing in economic, financial and strategic issues. He is also the author of Smart Power: Climate Change, the Smart Grid, and The Future of Electric Utilities,which discusses smart grids and the transmission of renewable power.

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