City-Level Decoupling: Urban Resource Flows and Governance of Infrastructure Transitions


It is generally accepted that the defining social character of our age is that the majority of people on the planet now live in cities. The 2.5 billion people that will take the global population from the current 7 billion to the projected 9.5 billion by 2050 will end up living in African and Asian cities. The end result will be the urbanization of nearly 4 billion people between 1950 and 2030, mainly in the cities of the global South. At the same time, it is also generally accepted that we also face an unprecedented global ecological crisis due to global warming, resource depletion and the gradual destruction of life-supporting ecosystem services. Indeed, we face this ecological crisis from the vantage point of the urban age. But both are unprecedented: never before has the majority of humanity lived in cities, and never before has humanity been a geo-physical force of nature. We are, in short, in an urbanized anthropocene.

The Report on City-Level Decoupling tackles this challenge head on. Instead of just lamenting the fact that cities are responsible for the bulk of CO2 emissions and resource consumption, the Report argues that it may well be a distinct advantage that the majority now live in cities just when we want to become more sustainable. The reason for this optimism is that cities are centres of innovation and this is precisely what is needed to face the challenge of the urbanized anthropocene. At the same time, thanks to agglomerations of scale fewer resources and lower emissions per capita are required to deliver the same quality of life in the city compared to the rural areas.

The report concludes by arguing that as investments in urban infrastructures continue to mount up in both developed and developing countries, it is necessary to ask what kinds of cities these new urban infrastructure investments are bringing into being. Are they going to replicate what is unsustainable and thus prepare these cities for a future collapse? Or will they contribute to making sure that cities become the building blocks for a new ecologically sustainable and fairer global civilization? In short, are we making the urban anthropocene more or less sustainable?

Full Text

Download “City-Level Decoupling: Urban Resource Flows and Governance of Infrastructure Transitions” (full report) from the Sustainability Institute.



Publication Type Report
Publisher United Nations Environment Programme
Year 2013
Author(s) Mark Swilling (Stellenbosch University), Blake Robinson (Sustainability Institute, Stellenbosch), Simon Marvin (University of Durham) and Mike Hodgson (University of Salford).
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