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Stories about the lives we've made

module:Urban sustainability

Cities and the role of technology


Frontis Piece

What are sustainable cities?

Sustainable development means improving the quality of life of a population within the capacity of Earth's finite resources. The needs of the present generation must be met, particularly those of the poor, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Logo for the 2002 Johannesburg Summit on sustainable development. picture zoom © United Nations

This is a dynamic process whereby the decision makers involved in any area plan, implement and then re-examine their ideas and policies over time. In cities the goal of sustainability has been increasingly highlighted over the past few decades as problems and issues arise from unsustainable practices and developments.

Technology plays a vital role in creating the goal of sustainability. Arguably it is the misuse of technology that works against this goal.

The concept of sustainability

In 1900, 14 percent of the world's population lived in cities, increasing to over 50 percent by 2000. Over the next 30 years, the world's urban population is expected to double to more than five billion, with virtually all the growth taking place in less economically developed countries.

Stockport Viaduct, 1848. New transport used increasing amounts of resources and led to increased waste. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Humans can now be classed as an urban species! Occupying two percent of the world's land surface, humans use 75 percent of its resources and discharge a similar amount of waste. The vital issue is how people manage these cities into the twenty-first century.

Technology has both facilitated the expansion of cities and enhanced the quality of life for its inhabitants. This has indirectly led to many increasing economic, social and environmental problems. The positive aspects of technology include job creation and easier transport for people. You can read more about the development of transport in this scene about railways in the nineteenth century:

STORY: Constructing the railway system
SCENE: New lines - a global view
launch scene

And more on motorised vehicles in the twenty-first century in this scene:

STORY: New choices in consumer goods
SCENE: Popular cars, bubble cars and scooters
launch scene

Some examples of the negative aspects of technology are unemployment as a consequence of automation and robotisation and use of sub-standard housing or architecture which promotes the loss of community. Misuse of technology is the key here. As globalisation increases and as more and more resources are required for consumer demands facilitated by technology, the negative impact of cities increases. We will explore all these ideas in the sections that follow.

Key ideas

Cities have long acted as the ‘engines' of human cultural, technological and economic development.

Throughout history there have been linked trends of:

  • Concentration of people in one location.
  • Specialisation into different tasks which together make the whole ‘city system'.
  • Utilisation of technology to control nature.

Thousands of years of nomadic hunter-gathering was gradually replaced for thousands and later millions of people by the development of a sedentary lifestyle (meaning living in one location). This was only possible through the concentration of food production in a limited, defined area, for example in Asia over 5000 years ago.

Resource Descriptions

Logo for the 2002 Johannesburg Summit on sustainable development.
Stockport Viaduct, 1848. New transport used increasing amounts of resources and led to increased waste.
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