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Cities of the Future Trend Toward Urbanization

October 12, 2016  |  Robert Reed, Southface
This article appeared in the October 2016 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
Robert Reed, AIA
Towns and cities today face challeng­es that are new, variable and driving innovation. Air and water quality, transit connectivity and competitive­ness in the new global economy are all compounded by increased global population and pressure on town infrastructure and services. The United Nations estimates that by the year 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. This trend toward urbanization comes as people real­ize the knowledge economy generates jobs in towns and cities, pulling populations from rural settings into less rural areas.
 
But not all cities and towns are benefitting from urbanization. Many cities struggle to attract the busi­nesses and talent to create thriving, 21st century communities. Residents demand that cities offer a strong sense of place, density, walkability and access to natural environments. These challenging expecta­tions can actually provide a unique opportunity to reduce municipalities’ environmental impacts, drive efficiency and innovation in infrastructure and save money. Southface’s experience with various munici­palities allows us to see many ways to take advantage of these opportunities.
 
Wastewater management is often municipalities’ largest energy cost. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy estimates that water sup­ply and wastewater treatment systems account for about 35 percent of energy used by municipalities. Transporting and treating water requires immense amounts of energy, which means that reducing wa­ter consumption provides an enormous opportunity to reduce municipal operating costs. Understanding the relationship between water use, energy use and public works expenses, a concept often referred to as the water-energy nexus, is important to improve efficiency and resilience in your city or town. Saving water as a municipality can go a long way in reducing operational costs.
 
This trend toward urbanization comes as people realize the knowledge economy generates jobs in towns and cities, pulling populations from rural settings into less rural areas.
Voluntary energy and water efficiency programs connect solid return on investment models for busi­nesses crafting an identity as a forward thinking, sen­sible city or center of commerce. The Better Building Challenge, for example, is a Department of Energy Program thriving in Atlanta. Originally selected as one of the first pilot cities to take on the program, At­lanta has seen Southface and other nonprofit partners work with local businesses to commit more than 105 million square feet of commercial real estate to re­duce their energy and water consumption by 20 per­cent by the year 2020. Participating buildings have their progress tracked, and projects are recognized for their success in a fun and competitive program for tenants and building managers.
 
With respect to attracting and retaining talent, much has been made about the ‘Millennials’ and the challenges they pose, the changes they represent and the assets they bring to the workforce and com­munities. The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) has been particularly interested in the future of the metro area with respect to the millennial generation, and has studied the group. The ARC summarizes that this new generation is committed to alternative trans­portation, bike lanes and public transit and walkable, mixed-use developments. The benefit of these pri­orities for cities and towns is that highly connected towns provide alternatives to environmentally det­rimental transportation styles, like exclusive use of personal vehicles, and their unique character will be attractive to Millennials.
 
So how can cities and towns around Georgia em­brace the challenges of the future and position them­selves to remain competitive and attractive to today’s workforce? Green infrastructure programs that in­corporate water conservation and green spaces save municipal costs in stormwater treatment and provide attractive places for citizens to congregate. Volun­tary programs like the Better Building Challenge and others are a great way to save money on water and energy in partnership with local businesses to help your town move toward sustainability. Companies and places of worship reduce their energy footprints while being recognized as leaders in efficiency, and municipalities build credibility as friendly, sensible partners in improving efficiency. Other than the lo­cal business community, many places of worship are leading environmental efforts in their areas. Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, a nonprofit organization that engages communities of faith in environmental action in response to climate change, provides excel­lent resources for local houses of worship.
 
As your portfolio of sustainability and efficiency initiatives grows, Southface will continue to uncover proven new ways for cities and towns to save money, reduce environmental impact and attract a new gen­eration of workers and citizens to become a city—or town—of the future.
 
Robert Reed is a licensed architect and the Director of Communities and Residential Sustainability Services at Southface.