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Stories about the lives we've made

module:Urban sustainability

Cities and the role of technology

page:Urban development

Rome was the first giant city in world history. It grew to an estimated population of between three-quarters of a million to one and a quarter million by the fourth century AD. Only a few cities in history – Constantinople, Tokyo, Beijing – came close to that size.

Gier aqueduct, a pinnacle of Roman cultural achievement c. 2nd century A.D. Rhône-Alpes, France. picture zoom © Niels Jakob Darger/

Rome was a microcosm (i.e. a small-scale example) of what cities would later become, holding the record for the next 700 years. Its administrators were forced to devise complex systems to deal with food supplies on an international scale, water supplies over long distances and local waste disposal. There were even urban traffic management systems in the city! All these innovative management systems were designed to improve quality of life.

The area that a city needs to support itself (known as the ecological footprint) has associated sustainability issues. Technology was playing a critical role in supporting cities such as Rome even in this early historical period: aqueducts, sewage systems and increasingly sophisticated ship building are all examples of this technology.



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Sustainability and the Western world

Smog wardens taking chemical readings, London, 1955. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

By the nineteenth century, major problems in cities were obvious, such as food provision, pollution from railways and sewage disposal. It was not until 1800 that London had 865,000 people but by 1850 this had risen to over 4 million people.

By 1940 London reached its maximum size of 8.65 million. This speed of growth had great implications for all the public and private decision makers involved in its management. London's supply routes did not just stretch across the Mediterranean, as in the Rome example, but right across the globe. Such an ecological footprint is seen as unsustainable in the long term as we shall see in later sections of this module.

Battersea Power Station, London. picture zoom © Niels Jakob Darger/

The larger a city, the more complex its division of labour, its social and cultural complexity and inevitably its use of technology. There has never been a city of more than a million people that did not run on fossil fuels such as coal, gas or oil. London by 2000 had a population of 7.4 million and used the equivalent of two super tankers of oil a week, equivalent to around 20 million tonnes of oil per year.

One critical issue for sustainability is whether, and how, this figure can be reduced. Such excessive consumption of finite resources is by its very nature unsustainable.

In summary, the concept of sustainability is basically 'the ability of something to maintain itself indefinitely'. A sustainable city is one where current resource decisions will not compromise the quality of life for future generations. Complex issues surround such decisions, complicated by the vastly different lifestyles followed by people across the world.

Sustainability milestones

Slum children playing with a skipping rope in a London alley, c.1930s. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

There are many ‘milestones' throughout the history of public planning initiatives designed to ensure a better quality of life and more efficient city functioning. In the UK these include Robert Owen's New Lanark in Scotland in 1800, Ebenezer Howard's concept of New Towns manifested in the creation of Letchworth in 1906, the establishment of Welwyn Garden City in 1919, the Public Health Acts of 1848 and the Dwellings Act of 1875.

You can see some of the conditions that led to urban planning initiatives in Britain in the following scene:

STORY: Muck and brass: The industrial town
SCENE: Disease in the industrial town
launch scene

On a larger, more integrated scale, the 1970s can be seen as a major starting point for real sustainability initiatives in cities and the environment as a whole.

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Recent milestones in integrated city sustainability planning
  1972 UN Conference on Human Development in Stockholm where the international community first met to consider global environment and development needs. Started UNEP (UN Environmental Programme).
  1980s UN set up Brundtland Commission (World Commission on Environment and Development). Produced report in 1989, Our Common Future, which became the framework for Agenda 21 and 27 Principles of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (`meeting the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs').
  1992 Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro where 150 nations signed a ‘blueprint for sustainable development' called Agenda 21, The Rio Declaration and launched the Local Agenda 21 process: 'Global problems, local action'. Key to city sustainability was the Framework Convention on Climate Change, Agenda 21 ideas on Human Settlement, and technology transfer.
  1992 Numerous initiatives by cities globally to fulfil their commitment to Local Agenda 21 and sustainability, ranging from high-profile pollution monitoring and traffic management in London, CCTV and crime initiatives in most developed world cities to lower profile waste disposal schemes by the Zaballeen in Cairo. Some cities publicise themselves as models of sustainability as a whole, e.g. Chattanooga in the United States and Curitiba in Brazil.
  1993 European Sustainable Cities Project financed by the European Union. Local authorities given guidance on how to plan in more sustainable ways, meaning long-term planning.
  1994 Global Forum at Manchester: 50 cities represented whose aim was to develop action plans for city sustainable growth. Criticised for superficial ‘greening' policies.
  1996 UN Conference ‘Habitat II' in Istanbul where 150 countries discussed how to curb growth, prioritise housing and sanitation, and promote public-private partnerships. The UN is proactive in promoting more effective environmental planning and management via its UN Habitat and Sustainable Cities Programme. Every October the UN promotes a ‘Habitat Day'. In the same year Herbert Girardet published The Gaia Atlas of Cities highlighting the differences between linear and circular metabolisms if cities are viewed as systems.
  2000 The eight Millennium Development Goals were adopted by UN member states. They range from poverty reduction, health and gender equality to education and environmental sustainability.
  2002 Earth Summit at Johannesburg reaffirmed the significance for several key indicators for sustainability.
  2002 Greater London Authority published City Limits Report to analyse the sustainability of London's consumption of resources and its ecological footprint. It highlighted technology in the development of a more sustainable city in the future.


Resource Descriptions

Gier aqueduct, a pinnacle of Roman cultural achievement c. 2nd century A.D. Rhône-Alpes, France.
Smog wardens taking chemical readings, London, 1955.
Battersea Power Station, London.
Slum children playing with a skipping rope in a London alley, c.1930s.
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