For many, urban planning and infrastructure design may sound like the least interesting topic in sustainability—but in fact, it is essential. Consider a few projections. The world’s urban population is set to grow from 3.5 billion today (half of the world’s population) to 6.3 billion by 2050. Sixty percent of the area projected to be urban by 2050 has yet to be built, which means that we will more than double the amount of urban built infrastructure in the next few decades.
In fact, it is estimated that urban land use will increase anywhere from two to five times its current footprint. That leads to the environmental challenge. Urban expansion is happening fastest in low-elevation, biodiversity-rich coastal zones, often in the poorest places, which correspondingly have the least capacity to inform policy and manage these changes effectively.
There is also a financing challenge. The G20’s global growth targets call for a global infrastructure growth program of some 80 to 90 trillion dollars to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, or roughly 6 trillion dollars per year. Seventy percent of global infrastructure demand in the next 15 years will come from cities, mainly in the developing world. That is why the multilateral development banks (MDBs) are collectively focused on “sustainable infrastructure finance”—with a heavy emphasis on the “finance” part and not as much attention given to the “sustainable” part.
The Sustainability Opportunity
But that misses an opportunity. There is a growing evidence base that suggests that sustainable infrastructure is also more financially sustainable, on top of being more environmentally and socially sustainable. We know that individual infrastructure projects can, if properly designed, be fully sustainable within a given footprint. The technology exists and demonstration projects abound. But the real opportunity to unlock financial value and cost-savings comes from systematic, upfront planning at a large spatial scale. That allows planners and project developers to optimize among potential systems of infrastructure investments, avoiding the most environmentally and socially disruptive options—which are also the ones that lead to lawsuits and delays, raise costs and decrease social value.
Up-front, large-scale planning, involving key players such as the insurance and risk industry, urban and ecological infrastructure specialists alongside construction engineers and city planners, can result in significant time savings and value creation—cheaper and better infrastructure for less time and money overall.