Challenges and Dynamics of Urbanization: A TSR interview with Dr. Karen Seto (Part One)

By Michael Bernstein and Branden Boyer-White

Dear lucky readers: we at The Sustainability Review recently had the good fortune of speaking with Dr. Karen Seto, Associate Professor of the Urban Environment at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental studies, on her research related to urbanization in China and India. According to her official bio, Dr. Seto’s research focuses on four themes touching on human land-use transformation: its nature, impacts, implications, and potential future manifestations. In this first part of our edited transcript, we discuss aspects and drivers of urbanization in China and India. In the second part (forthcoming in Features), we look to the future and discuss challenges and opportunities for urban sustainability.

The Sustainability Review (TSR): In your most recent visit to Arizona State University, you gave a fascinating talk at the 14th annual Central-Arizona Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER) all-scientist meeting in which you discussed urbanization in China and India. Specifically you noted how urbanization transitions are fundamentally different in rate, magnitude and scale, in these nations. What are the implications of these urbanization patterns for sustainability?

Dr. Karen Seto (KS): I think it’s useful to first spend a minute describing how they are different, because I think that will lead to the implications. In China, you see the growth of very large cities that are massive in scale, expansive in extent, incredibly dense in terms of population and new building development, and rapidly converting the landscape. We see forest and agricultural land rapidly urbanized and transformed by housing and manufacturing and commerce. In India, you get urbanization happening at a much, much lower rate; you don’t have expansive development in the same way. Indian cities are dense, but they’re not as dense as in China. They’re certainty not as dense in terms of the built environment. You don’t generally see the mega high-rise, large-scale buildings as you do in China. Most people who go to big cities in India would still consider them big cities, but just not big in the Chinese scale. There are many more informal settlements in India, characterized by low-density development.

And just as the styles of urbanization are really different in each of these places, the drivers are very different. In China, you’ve got a lot of manufacture-led urbanization and in India you have, instead, more migration-led urbanization. In India, population growth is really what’s driving the urban expansion, not manufacturing growth—at least not in the same way as China.

Getting back to the implications, they’re very different. In China, cities are getting built in short periods of one and two decades, which means that infrastructures get laid out: road networks, transportation corridors, etc. are laid down. So, as you know, being in Arizona, once you have freeways in place, it becomes very hard to change people’s lifestyles.

In India, things happen at a much slower pace, things are much more bottom-up than top-down. You see almost the opposite problem in terms of infrastructure. And one of the big implications for sustainability in India becomes how will you supply services—clean water, accessibility to sanitation—to large numbers of people. In China they’ve got the engineering challenges down, so the question there is more of how to urbanize in a way that’s more efficient, that consumes fewer resources.

These are very, very different sets of questions. But I would argue, and this is the commonality between the two countries, that the sustainability challenges with urbanization are not about what happens in one city, or even about what happens in 10 cities. The challenges are about the implications of 300 million more people who don’t have access to clean water or sanitation living in cities in India; of 300 million more people living in cities in China that are configured as in North America-- low density, auto-centric cities.

TSR: To follow-up broadly on that, in your talk at ASU, speaking about India, you touched on how three agencies or interest groups are represented in planning for growth: economic development, construction and land, and urban development planners. You shared your perspective that urban planners come in to play at the bottom of the totem pole in this ladder of consideration. Given this sort of political structure of decision-making—of having the people who could, potentially, apply "checks" on the inequities perpetuated by urbanization patterns—what are the points at which you see space for sustainability to apply pressure for change—either through information or working with decision-makers?

KS: That’s probably the most challenging question. Because this is something that’s not actually, limited to China and India. Around the world, urban planning is a local issue. You try to talk to your congress member from Arizona about urban planning and your congressmen will probably say that that’s not something congress deals with.

It’s not even a state issue. It’s a local issue. And yet, at the same time, we know that aggregated at the regional, national, and global scales, the way in which cities are laid out have huge impacts on energy use and emissions. So urban planning, in many ways becomes the crux of the sustainability issue. We think of sustainability as a global and environmental social challenge, but urbanization and urban planning are local issues.

One of the big questions, moving ahead for the next few decades, probably, is how does planning—and I don’t mean just urban planning but land-use planning, spatial planning, regional planning—how does how we use land, how we’re configured in space, be elevated to a national or maybe even a global issue.

One example: if you aggregate up and look at cities worldwide, where they are located, many are located in low-elevation costal zones. If you forecast the growth of cities over the next 20 to 30 years, we see that cities are going to expand into biological hotspots. Very quickly the issue of urbanization is no longer only a local issue. The question becomes how do we re-think what we mean by sustainability across scales.

Another example of this: urbanization in Shanghai does not only affect land use in Shanghai. People in Shanghai are going to want to furnish their homes with furniture, maybe from teak from Indonesia. Such an urban middle class will have very different lifestyle and dietary demands. When we then think about urbanization, it’s no longer the land-use issue, but the issue of how lifestyles and livelihoods are connected, around the world, with resource use.

TSR: And that’s very interesting, because you’ve discussed how that shift was also one of the areas of opportunity, of something like a "global acculturation" where you have middle class from China, from India, traveling more and returning home and saying, "Well we want these things for our nation"—

KS: Yes, and I think that’s really critical. We know there’s a strong correlation between levels of economic development and concern for the environment. We also know that if you’re trying to eek out a living, or you’re trying to just provide basic services to a large population, it’s hard to think about ecosystem services or preserving the environment. As people’s incomes increase, in cases from the U.S. and also China, we see a larger demand for environmental goods and services: clean air, clean water, pollution free environments. We are definitely seeing that in the case of China.

TSR: Continuing in those terms, what are the opportunities for helping to foster those potentially positive elements for a transition to sustainable urbanization?

KS: Probably, and this is going to sound like a chicken and egg argument, but I think one of the biggest opportunities is simply the innovation that can come out of many people living together in close proximity. If you can get creative minds talking about these things, that’s a huge opportunity.

If you look at major innovations in the 20th century, very few of them actually took place, or were creations, completely out of isolation. And so I think there’s a way in which having a lot more people with different perspectives and different ways to approach and tackle the problem will actually lead to new solutions.

There’s a whole genre about best management practices or best practices in general. And I think that’s really challenging, especially when you get to the local level where every place is unique: the institutions are going to be different, the local concerns are going to be different, the stakeholders are going to be different. So I would ask instead how we transfer what we know across different places to develop innovative solutions that, rather than thinking about the optimal solution, avoid worst-case scenarios.

I know that might sound counter-intuitive, because we’re trained to think that we want the optimal solution. Certainly economists talk about these optimal solutions. But I think in many ways its difficult to get to the optimal solution when you’re actually working with so many unknowns and so many variables. When you have so many variables that you’re trying to optimize across space, across time, across constituents, the solution space becomes very small.

But we can develop, pretty quickly, parameters or guidelines for how to avoid the worst urban environmental outcomes. We know for example that we don’t want to design cities where people have to drive to get to services. That’s probably the first, most important guideline—design cities where people don’t need to drive to get to services. That gives us a way to think, well, how do we go about doing that? This opens up local communities to design solutions that are appropriate for them, within their budget, rather than pushing subways or light rail is the way to go. We may not know what they really need, but we do know what they should not use.

TSR: It’s kind of a jujitsu move on the planning paradigm: first, acknowledging that the complexity of situations is greater than the capacity that we have for management, next, allowing for complexity by providing a context of global urbanization design parameters—what you point to on your website as "rules-of thumb"—to enhance local adaptation through creativity.

KS: Yes. And at some level, the other, more challenging issue to grapple with is how do we take the issue of urbanization beyond the local level. For example, take the issue of global habitats for biodiversity—biodiversity hotspots. Every city or every settlement can think about ways to preserve open space…but that doesn’t mean that, on the aggregate, we’re going to preserve the biological hotspots of the world. That requires some other level of—and I don’t want to say governance, because I don’t think that's necessarily it—but it requires a different level of discussion about sustainability. There is such a huge danger of the issue of urbanization becoming entrenched as a local issue, there’s so much attraction to thinking about it as a local issue, that the danger is that no one is looking out globally as every place urbanizes.

TSR: Right, because at the end of the day, one planet.

KS: Exactly, that’s right. And that’s probably the big take home message: it doesn’t matter if Chicago or New York City have a zero carbon plan if every other city does not adopt a similar mentality.

Stay tuned for the second part of this interview in the coming days, in which we discuss with Dr. Seto the role of innovation in designing cities of the future, today.

Interviewee Biography

Dr. Seto is an established leader in the area of urbanization and global environmental change, with geographic expertise in Asia, especially China and India. Dr. Seto is Co-Chair of the Urbanization and Global Environmental Change Project (UGEC) of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), and a Coordinating Lead Author for Working Group III of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. She is an Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow and recipient of a NASA New Investigator Program Award, a NSF Career Award, and a National Geographic Research Grant.