In 2018, 55 per cent of the world’s population lived in cities. By 2050, two-thirds of all humanity will be urban. The speed and the scale of urbanisation impose many challenges on sustainable development, challenges that cannot be met if there are no significant changes in the way we develop our urban areas. Cities should meet our needs, without compromising the environment. The challenges though are numerous, including air pollution and global warming. In 2016, 9 out of 10 people living in urban areas were exposed to air that did not meet the World Health Organisation air quality standards for particulate matter. Cities are also major contributors to climate change. Even though they occupy just 2 per cent of the Earth’s surface, they account for 78 per cent of the world’s energy consumption and produce more than 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Other environmental challenges in urban areas include the negative environmental impacts on water quality, land-use and waste management.
The environmental challenges in urban areas have attracted the attention of academic research, in the scope of proposing ways that ensure sustainable urban planning. Research at the intersection of urban and environmental economics offers valuable insights into the optimal urban structure in cities with smaller or larger population sizes. Among the relevant questions are the following: how does environmental quality affect the decisions of individuals with respect to where to reside in the interior of a city? What is the optimal urban structure for a city that has high levels of industrial pollution as opposed to a city exposed to traffic-induced pollution? Drawing on examples from my own research, I will show how urban pollution affects the internal structure and the size of cities and discuss policies that serve to efficiently manage urbanisation and create sustainable cities.
In the second part of this lecture, I will focus on environmental challenges that I aim to tackle in my research in the future. I will discuss challenges, such as the waste management, and show how the tools of urban and environmental economics can help us design policies that will promote the establishment of a zero-waste society and the creation of resource-efficient cities and communities. I will also discuss how a shock, such as COVID-19, can permanently affect the size, the shape and the attractiveness of urban areas, and what are the implications of higher fractions of working-from-home for the future of cities and for the environment.