Professor Tim Dixon, Chair in Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment, School of the Built Environment, University of Reading
The world’s growing urban population
We live in an urban world. Today a majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and this is set to grow to nearly 70% by 2050. In the UK we are already heavily urbanised with about 80% of the population living in cities. In England much of the future growth will come from existing smaller and medium sized urban areas like Reading.
So rapid urbanisation, changing demographics and climate change will all impact on the way that people live, work and play in cities. This means we need to plan for the future to try and overcome the current disconnection between short term planning horizons and longer term environmental change to 2050.
Many cities around the world have therefore developed visions (or shared expectations) about the future. In the UK, for example, Bristol’s 2020 vision, and its smart city vision, is based on ‘people, place and prosperity’, a desire to be a ‘Global Green Capital’, and an aspiration to be a centre for smart city thinking. In Canada, Vancouver aims to be the world’s greenest city by 2020, with tough targets set for greenhouse gas emissions and a desire to create a city which is resilient to climate change. In Denmark, Copenhagen’s vision is based on a target to be carbon-neutral by 2025, underpinned by a highly successful walking/cycling policy agenda and a strong focus on renewable energy.
These cities are planning to be both ‘smart’ and ‘sustainable’. This means using new technology (such as smart metering, environmental sensors, and smart traffic management systems) to help create a more sustainable future for people living in cities which is also economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. Creating a smart and sustainable city isn’t easy. It requires a clear strategic vision, a strong link with climate change strategy, active planning, inclusive participation with key stakeholders, and a sense of political viability.
So what about Reading?
Reading’s success is based on its physical and virtual connectivity nationally and internationally, but a big challenge is how to balance the amount of skilled employment required in Reading with the size of its direct labour force. Reading is a net importer of labour, which also creates pressures on housing, transport and longer commuting distances. A rich heritage and historic built environment also makes it difficult to re-engineer or retrofit an urban area like Reading, and adapt and mitigate for the growing effects of climate change. Reading also suffers from poor air quality, and, if accompanied by an increasing frequency of extreme weather events, this could affect people’s health and safety, the continuity of business, and the resilience of energy and water supplies.
So to help us think more strategically about these important issues in Reading the University has been working with Barton Willmore and Reading UK CIC to help create a smart and sustainable vision for Reading, looking ahead to 2050. Through a series of workshops and other related activities we have started to develop a vision for what Reading will look and feel like in 2050. Our thinking has covered urban design scenarios which encompass ‘rivers and parks’, ‘green technology’, and ‘festivals and cultures’ themes. By helping Reading continue to develop as a centre not only for green thinking and research, but also for digital technologies, Reading could also ultimately become an ‘urban living lab’ to help other cities become both smart and sustainable.