In recent decades, cities in decline have focused on revitalizing their downtown centers to achieve a new renaissance. But for cities to thrive in coming decades, they may just have to change their approach: starting downtown.
That was the consensus of a panel of investors, academics, consultants, and urban planners at the Fortune Global Sustainability Forum in Yunnan, China. Asked what the ideal livable city would look like in 2050, most said that the way cities are conceived and planned will need to change.
“Most cities, especially in China, are planned like a solar system with a center, like the sun. But for cities to be livable and viable in 2050, we need to plan them as if they are constellations or galaxies, with many clusters,’’ said Professor Wang Shouzhi, Deputy Dean of the School of Creativity and Art at ShanghaiTech University.
How to design cities to be sustainable is crucial. In China alone, there are about 30 megacities—urban centers with populations over 30 million—compared to just three in 1975. Fifty-five percent of the world’s population live in cities, and by 2050 that is projected to be 68 percent. Cities generate over 70 percent of the world’s economic growth, but also the lions’ share of greenhouse gas emissions.
“In the city of the future, all functions will be decentralized,’’ said Peter Grubstein, Founder and Managing Member of NGEN, an investment firm that focuses on fostering the growth of sustainable cities. “We have proven in the power industry that power can be renewable and local. We can do the same with city services such as food supply and health care.”
Urban governments and planners are aware of the problems, yet few have succeeded in creating sustainable, livable development. So who can drive this mega-transformation?
“Corporations have a huge role to play,’’ said Natalie Chan, Managing Director of PIE Strategy, a consultancy. “The challenges seem so overwhelming and scary, but they have a huge opportunity to transform cities. If they do it right, they can turn the cost burden of change into opportunities for growth and profit.”
Nonetheless, city governments must take the lead, said Per Boesgaard of the International Health and Environmental Industries Association. Businesses alone may not always have the collective good at heart. “Governments need to provide the platform where everyone meets and collaborates for solutions, including the people who actually live in city. They are the ones who know what they want and what they don’t.”
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—Watch here: Fortune Global Sustainability Forum 2019 livestream
—Impossible Foods wants China to make its own meat
—Dow CEO Jim Fitterling has a counter-argument to the plastic backlash
—Former Sinopec chairman says Chinese executives think climate change can wait
—China’s Yangtze river basin—the world’s third-largest economy—is at great risk
Get Fortune’s The Loop newsletter on the revolutions in energy, technology, and sustainability.