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Urban areas poised for growth spurt; Yale researcher says planning needs to start now

New Haven Register, 23 September 2012

The world is on the cusp of a city-building boom that potentially will transform everything from public health and housing to climate change and biodiversity, a Yale University researcher says. In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Yale’s Karen Seto and other researchers predict that by 2030, urban areas around the world will expand by more than 463,000 square miles.

They say it’s the equivalent of adding 20,000 football fields of urban space every day for the first 30 years of the 21st century.

“The main message here is that there is this major urban transition that’s happening,” said Seto, an associate professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and lead author of the study.

“People are moving into cities around the world. Those people are going to need housing, shopping, transportation systems. It will have an impact on everyone, including people in New Haven.”

Seto said the forecast is based on five types of data: a global map of existing urban areas, population density data, United Nations population growth estimates, historical data on global gross domestic product and GDP estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Much of the expansion is predicted to occur in Asia. The study said that continent will account for almost half of the rise in “high-probability” urban expansion.

In North America, the study predicts urban land cover to nearly double — by 96,000 square miles.

“I’m not talking about New York or Washington, D.C.,” Seto says. “I’m talking about New Haven and Branford and Hamden.

“We’re going to urbanize in a big way. I hope this can be a wake-up call for Americans, that we need to become leaders in how we go about it.”

Seto said America’s influence on global urbanization extends well beyond statistical measurements.

“What happens in the U.S. is critical important,” she explains. “The rising middle class in other countries aspires to be what the middle class is in North America. The urban form we take will be replicated.”

For example, she said, trends indicate that younger Americans favor city life to the single-family, detached housing of suburbia.

“The new cool is multiple-use housing, places where you can walk down the block and get your groceries and see your friends. We need to export that new cool.”

In China, the study forecasts a 1,100-mile urban corridor along the coast from Hangzhou to Shenyang.

Another region of intense growth will be in India, particularly in that country’s seven state capital cities.

In Africa, Seto’s group said urban growth will jump to 590 percent above the growth measured in 2000.

The study specifically mentions the Nile River area of Egypt, the coast of West Africa on the Gulf of Guinea, the northern shores of Lake Victoria, the Kano region of Nigeria and greater Addis Ababa in Ethiopia as urban expansion zones.

The study urges local and national governments to focus on energy efficiency, sustainability and transportation issues in cities now, rather than wait.

“I see this as an opportunity,” Seto said. “Most of this urban environment hasn’t been built yet. We don’t need to get it perfectly right. We just need to not get it wrong.”