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A key prerequisite, and the foundation of sustainable development, is sustainable cities, especially the world’s larger and faster growing cities. Urbanization is the most powerful force shaping the planet. The best place to try to bring about sustainable development is likely through the world’s largest cities.

Today more than half the world lives in urban areas and this statistic is expected to double – to more than 7 billion people – by 2050. Canada's population urbanized relatively early in its history – surpassing the half urban mark in the 1930s – and is now more than 80% urban. Today, Japan, Europe and most of the Americas are largely urbanized. East Asia is quickly urbanizing and South Asia is following closely. And finally, Sub-Saharan Africa will be mostly urbanized by the middle of this century.

Cities anchor our cultures and countries, they drive our economies; urban residents are the final customers for almost all the world’s energy supply and resources. Cities generate our wealth and as a by-product of material consumption, bring about most of the truly challenging local and global problems, like biodiversity loss and climate change.

Decisions we make today on the shape we build and the way we power our cities will determine how well we meet the objectives of sustainable development. By 2050, more than eighty per cent of the world’s population will reside in urban areas; it’s critical that these cities are efficient and provide a nurturing quality of life. Today, 11% of the world’s urban residents, or 757 million people, live in the world’s 101 largest cities (i.e., metropolitan areas). By 2050, this is on track to increase to about 13% and 1.3 billion people (see paper Socioeconomic Pathways and Regional Distribution of the World’s 101 Largest Cities).

To assist with sustainability planning credible urban estimates on material flows, local economy, population and growth trends (or decline) are needed. These data compilations should start with the world’s largest cities since they provide the most comprehensive data (albeit still sporadic and often sparse) and these cities are the critical to world’s economy and overall levels of pollution. These data sets will also need to be projected to about 2050, since much of the large scale infrastructure currently being planned and built will likely still be in operation in 2050, and 35 years is about the maximum time horizon financial, demographic and technical planners are routinely comfortable to estimate.

A World Bank initiating report ‘Building Sustainability in an Urbanizing World’ (2013) provides the starting point for the 101 largest cities. Starting with this list of cities, University of Ontario Institute of Technology researchers projected global urbanization rates and population growth in the world’s 101 largest urban areas to 2100.

This list of cities forms the skeleton to which additional information, such as GHG emissions, energy use and mix, local economic development, is now being added. In partnership with other organizations such as University of Toronto (Civil Engineering), World Bank, Memorial University of Newfoundland (Engineering), World Business Council for Sustainable Development, American Society of Civil Engineers and DGF Suez, city data is regularly iterated and improved. Existing city data sets are published openly, with wide-spread inputs and refinements encouraged. Annual ‘year-book’ publications are expected.

The Energy Systems Engineering program at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) invites all partners, especially the cities themselves, to help with collecting, refining and better understanding information on the world’s largest cities.

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