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Pursuing a better quality of life for all in urbanising world

Happy World Habitat Day! The United Nations (UN) designated the first Monday of October of every year as World Habitat Day to reflect on the state of our habitats, and the basic right of all to adequate shelter. It is also a day intended to remind the world that we all have the power and responsibility to shape the future of our cities and towns. 

Since 2007, over 50% of the world’s population has been living in cities. By 2050, it is estimated that 70% of people will live in urban areas. Urban areas in Less Developed Countries (LDCs) will be the locations of almost all of the global population growth up to 2030, with most growth expected to be seen in South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia.  

Understanding The Cause and Effect of Our Urbanising World  

Although we tend to think of megacities (populations of more than 10 million), the reality is that most people live in smaller cities and urban areas which perhaps receive less attention than they should. 

Urban areas provide opportunities such as employment and education, but also many challenges. Inequality is rising in cities, with many facing a lack of access to basic infrastructures such as clean drinking water, a good sewerage system and reliable electricity. Many cities are also affected by poor air quality as road networks are increased and public transport is not expanded to meet the potential growing demand. In some cities, poor air quality also arises due to a lack of access to clean fuels for cooking and heating. 

Uncontrolled, or poorly controlled urban development leads to habitat destruction and a lack of green spaces which are important for general wellbeing.  This lack of access to open spaces became very apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the poorest being the worst affected.  The presence of vegetation in urban areas is known to improve air quality, but this is often ignored when plans are drawn up. 

In the context of anthropogenic climate change (climate change caused by human activity), cities are key contributors. They account for between 60 and 80% of energy consumption and generate as much as 70% of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. As the climate warms, heat extremes in cities are going to increase, particularly affecting the poor, the very young, and the elderly in the community. Increasingly intense rainfall forecast for many tropical areas will increase the risk of flooding, along with the disruptions and damage it causes. This is a phenomenon that is in no way new to Malaysia. In fact, a mere 10 months ago in December 2021, the nation faced floods that affected numerous communities in the Klang Valley and other states.  

Big And Small Ways To Shape The Future Of Our Cities And Towns 

Thinking about how we design our cities and increasing green infrastructure can help us both to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. It can reduce excessive heating and also help to improve the quality of air in our urban environments, bringing with it various health benefits. Increasing green spaces will improve biodiversity, especially if green corridors can be introduced to allow animal species to move, mitigating encroachment into areas populated by humans, thus improving coexistence of both groups.   

Fewer impermeable surfaces or replacing them with permeable pavements, seen in ‘sponge cities’, as well as Green Rooftops to intercept rainwater and reduce runoff in response to heavy rain, can reduce the risk of flooding.  The potential benefits of re-thinking our urban habitats are many. 

Even simple things like cultivating plants attractive to pollinators like birds, bats, butterflies, moths, and beetles can help. These include sunflowers, hibiscus, tomatoes, aubergines and herbs like dill and coriander among others. Furthermore, urban gardens can improve both access to fresh food and wellbeing.   

Sustainable Cities and Communities is one of the key UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG11).  With care and collaboration, building cities that are good for people and the environment should be possible. This will, however, require new approaches to thinking across many sectors, private and public alike, and determined action from both central and local governments, to support growing pressures from communities to build a greener, healthier, future. 

This is an expert opinion piece by Professor Sarah Metcalfe, University of Nottingham Malaysia Interim Provost, CEO and Professor in Earth and Environmental Dynamics.


For media enquiries please contact: Josephine Dionisappu, PR and Communications Manager University of Nottingham Malaysia at

Note to editors: The University of Nottingham Malaysia (UNM) offers a distinctly British education in an Asian setting with a legacy as the first overseas campus of a UK university to be established globally. UNM is recognised for its excellence in teaching and learning, as well as the outstanding student experience offered on its 118-acre campus just an hour south of the KL city-centre. UNM's extensive and diverse research community develops solutions that tackle key global challenges in the areas of food, health, the environment, sustainability, and socio-economic issues within the ASEAN region. The University of Nottingham is ranked 114th from over 1,500 institutions around the globe by the QS World University Rankings 2023 and is rated 5 Star (Excellent) in the SETARA rating system by the Government of Malaysia. Established in 2000, UNM has more than 5,000 students from over 75 countries with 15,000 alumni working with the world’s top 100 global brands.

Posted on 7th October 2022

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