Bringing the Country to the City

People are moving into densely-populated cities like never before. Natural systems will play a key part in keeping those cities liveable.

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We are now witnessing one of the largest migrations in human history. As more and more people move out of rural areas and into cities, new challenges are emerging that need to be addressed, from sustainability to social equity.

Sarah Burch, professor of geography and environmental management at the University of Waterloo, envisions the sustainable cities of the future.

Improving the way cities are structured is key to quality of life for the growing number of people that live in them. As population densities increase, people will likely also live closer to the places where they work and play. Mass and rapid transit will become increasingly important, as well as active modes of transportation, like walking and cycling.

Far from a concrete jungle, Burch believes that natural systems will play an important role in making cities resilient and liveable. Their creative integration could solve many infrastructure problems, all while making cities more desirable.

“For instance, we can use wetlands to purify water, to protect the city from storms or floods, to create recreational opportunities, beautiful places where people can cycle and play, and do all of those things at the same time, instead of building a wall to keep out a flood or expanding our sewer system to purify water,” says Burch.

While this may sound like a technical challenge, Burch insists that the technologies needed for renewable energy and transportation are already here. The larger challenges are social and political. Finding synergies between the economy and the environment, and ways to protect both at once, will be key to the implementation of sustainable technologies.

In a way, bringing a bit of the country to the city might help fill the needs of cities of the future.

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Sarah Burch is a Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Sustainability Governance and
Innovation in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management, University of Waterloo, Canada. Professor Burch and her team explore transformative responses to climate change at the community scale, and innovative strategies for governing sustainability.
She is a Coordinating Lead Author of the Earth System Governance project’s New Directions Initiative, which is creating the Science and Implementation Plan that will inform the research of an international network of more than 3000 environmental governance scholars over the next 10 years. She is Coordinating Lead Author in the Second
Assessment Report on Climate Change in Cities and was a Contributing Author to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007).
Professor Burch was a Visiting Research Associate at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute (2010-2013) and was awarded a Banting Fellowship for her work on sustainability innovation. Her most recent book (2014) is entitled “Understanding Climate Change: Science, Policy and Practice.”