By 2100, the UN projects that 10 billion people will live on Earth–and it’s likely that many of them will live in cities. For the professor Richard Weller, who heads the urbanism and landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania, the sprawl that’s sprung up to accommodate that urbanization is one of the biggest design problems of the next century–one that will transform the planet as we understand it.
In a new online publication called Atlas for the End of the World, Weller details the state of the planet through a series of maps and infographics. In order to assess how urban sprawl is destroying the environment, Weller used the benchmarks established by the 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, in which 168 countries agreed to protect 17% of the Earth’s land for conservation purposes by 2020. Currently, 15% of all territory is protected–but that remaining 2% represents a significant hurdle. It’s equivalent to the area of 700,000 Central Parks.
Weller’s Atlas is an attempt to determine which land in the world should make up that last 2%–with an eye toward a future project that will assess how urban sprawl can be more environmentally friendly. The publication focuses on the Earth’s most threatened ecoregions, called hotspots, because they have the greatest diversity of species that cannot be found elsewhere. The problem is, the planet’s valuable ecoregions also play host to 422 cities with populations over 300,000. And 380 of those have a growth trajectory over the next decade that will wreck the ecological zones that surround them today. If that occurs, thousands of species found nowhere else on the planet will likely go extinct.
“That’s something the global design community is not paying much attention to,” Weller says. “We pour all our energy into New York. But this piece of research is saying to the design community that we need to look at these other places now. We need to push further afield. It’s not just London, Paris, and New York anymore.” There might be a community in some of the world’s design capitals, but Weller believes that other cities in the world need as much planning and consideration.
Weller says there are two kinds of sprawl, one where people pouring into cities from rural areas begin informally building at the edge of cities, and one that’s planned by policy. But neither necessarily situates the city as part of a broader ecosystem that includes nature. Weller believes that cities should become stewards of the surrounding landscapes, finding pride in place rather than simply exploiting it.
Weller believes cities need to assess two things: Their relationship with their immediate context and what they’re destroying as they grow, as well as the global supply chain and all the resources that flow in and out of the city. “They’re a new kind of nature,” he says. “If we can design them as sophisticated organisms with metabolisms that don’t just suck the life out of the planet and shit it out the other end, that’s the next big stop for the evolution of cities. That requires design and creativity.”
The Atlas is composed of 44 world maps that examine the relationship between the world’s ecological hotspots and urbanization, along with a series of infographics that depict the amount of resources and land needed to support a population of 10 billion people, all of whom live like modern-day Americans. In the maps section, one graphic lays out the ecoregions that Weller focused his research on; another maps out cities in these hotspots; and a third examines conflict and corruption within them. It’s not all gloom and doom: Amidst maps examining climate change, the nuclear energy footprint, and environmental displacement, there’s also a map detailing conservation projects that aim to preserve biodiversity–efforts which give Weller hope for the future.
The maps are a systematic way to understand the state of the world and provide designers and scholars with the research necessary for the next step of the project: finding tangible ways for cities to grow responsibly. And the Atlas, which exists in an easily navigable format online, was designed to make the research accessible to designers, schoolchildren, and global city leaders alike.
Weller says the most shocking thing about the four years of research he’s conducted on ecological hotspots is that while demographers are clear that cities will need to accommodate billions of people over the rest of the century, countries are doing little about it. “There’s the pressure of food production, and this is all happening at the same time, and there’s very little planning,” Weller says. “Nations aren’t putting climate change pressure, urbanization, growth, and food production together. It’s a bit scary.”
That responsibility to plan for the responsible growth of cities, he believes, will fall to designers–as well as engineers, landscape architects, urban ecologists, economists, and artists. “There’s no space left or land left where no one knows what’s going on there,” he says. “It has a function, it has a value, it’s been mapped. You could say the planet had become a design problem because we’re all over it, and we need to extract as many resources as we can out of it. Because of all of those pressures, you need to design not just cities, but entire landscapes.”
Weller thinks of the Atlas for the End of the World as laying the groundwork for the design work to come. His next project is to take the 380 cities that are on a collision course with the most valuable natural environments on Earth, choose two or three, and do an in-depth case study of how those cities can grow in a way that will best preserve the surrounding landscape.
And it’s worth pointing out that he doesn’t actually believe this is the end of the world. “It’s the end of a certain kind of world, the world of the last 450 years, since the first atlas was written,” Weller says. “It’s the end of the world where we continue to think we can just exploit far away places. It’s only an end in the sense that it’s a new beginning.”