It's all in the sprawl: Understanding the patterns of energy consumption

Where’s the bustle?: Although seemingly modest in comparison to some urban centres, prosperous communities like Copenhagen, Denmark, actually have a high per capita energy usage.

Where’s the bustle?: Although seemingly modest in comparison to some urban centres, prosperous communities like Copenhagen, Denmark, actually have a high per capita energy usage.

The urbanisation process has a strong impact on a city’s energy use – and on global consumption patterns, too.

What does Kuala Lumpur have in common with Marrakesh, Kathmandu and Nanchong? At first glance, the answer may seem to be “not much”. Yet, according to a newly-released report by energy giant Shell, these three cities may be among KL’s closest cousins when it comes to defining characteristics, specifically the ways in which we use energy.

Classified as “underdeveloped urban centres”, these particular cities have several key features in common: low population, low Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita and medium to low population density. They may also share some other features, such as being part of developing countries, being made up of low-density suburbs that radiate out from a central point, relatively small living spaces and poor transport infrastructure, which leads to high reliance on walking, biking and motorcycles. 

These commonalities, among others, indicate the cities’ energy consumption patterns and offer valuable insight into future patterns of development.

Launched during the recent World Cities Summit in Singapore, New Lenses On Future Cities is a supplement to Shell’s New Lens Scenarios (published in 2013), a range of analytical tools that help policy- and decision-makers interpret future energy issues.

There is no doubt that urbanisation is a major area of concern. The report estimates that the global urban population, numbering 3.6 billion in 2010, is likely to leap to 6.3 billion by 2050. With that jump comes a pressing need to ensure that these cities remain liveable and sustainable.

A city’s energy demand is affected by many factors, including climate, geography, population, economic activity and layout. Meanwhile, energy usage in urban areas tends to be concentrated around buildings, such as houses and offices, and transport (both public and personal).

With much of urban growth happening in less developed, highly-populated areas such as India (projected to account for 18% of this increase in population, the highest), China (13%) and Nigeria (8%), understanding these patterns of energy consumption, and applying that knowledge to the urbanisation process, becomes ever more essential.

For, while urbanisation has great potential in terms of economic development, innovation and a higher quality of life, poor management of the process can result in environmental, social and political problems, particularly with the increase in demand for water, food and energy. These in turn can affect the positive growth of a city because of unattractive elements such as pollution, crime and congestion.

While Shell is aware that cities are not directly comparable to one another, the hope seems to be for this study to clarify the conditions shaping the future growth of a city.

During the launch, Shell chief energy advisor Wim Thomas pointed out that there are certain truisms across the board.

“Despite the differences between cities, best practice does exist around urban development and how to manage it,” he said. “Compact, densely-populated, well-planned cities with effective integrated infrastructure and services are more resource-efficient. With appropriate attention, they can also be attractive places to live.”

Thomas says despite the differences between cities, best practice does exist around urban development.

Choose density over sprawl

New Lenses On Future Cities classifies cities into six archetypes, based on a study of more than 500 urban centres around the world. Besides the aforementioned underdeveloped urban centres, these include: developing mega-hubs; underprivileged crowded cities; sprawling metropolises; prosperous communities; and urban powerhouses.

These findings are intended to help the company understand energy consumption in cities by examining various related factors – such as population, city layout, transportation systems and economy – to indicate where energy use is concentrated and what paths urbanisation may take in the future.

These archetypes, and the accompanying data, show some interesting findings.

For instance, while more than half of the cities studied, 52%, belonged to the underdeveloped urban centres archetype, the high energy usage is actually by the sprawling metropolises (such as Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo) and prosperous communities (Stockholm, Calgary, Dubai).

In terms of energy usage, the former group shows lower usage among households, with the bulk of consumption being by industry; to put a specific number on it, these cities collectively use the equivalent of 0.49 billion tonnes of oil every year. In contrast, sprawling metropolises only make up 8% of the cities studied, but are the highest consumers of energy, using 1.66 billion tonnes annually.

The key may be the layout of the city.

Thomas explained that more densely-populated and compact cities, such as Hong Kong, use much less energy per person than sprawling ones like Los Angeles, because denizens tend to live closer to where they shop, work and seek entertainment, thereby using less energy to get around.

Conversely, cities with extensive road networks, unreliable public transport or high suburban living can be more energy-intensive. Per capita energy use in prosperous communities, meanwhile, is the result of higher personal income, urban sprawl and larger homes.

Future pathways

The future may be rather different, depending on which path the next wave of urbanisation takes.

Developing mega-hubs like Hyderabad and Chongqing, and underprivileged crowded cities such as Manila and Bangalore, currently have low income levels, medium to high populations, and use relatively low amounts of energy.

As prosperity increases, however, they are likely to become heavy energy users, especially in light of their high population numbers. These cities’ energy demands, therefore, will shape global levels of use, making their development choices extremely important.

As prosperity increases, developing mega-hubs like Chonqing, China, are likely to become heavy energy users and their demands will shape global levels of use.

Shell, in its supplement, has identified two particularly significant ways in which these cities may evolve that will have an effect on global energy levels.

The first, termed “controlled urbanisation”, is when the population and GDP per capita increase rapidly, spurring development; this typically happens in underdeveloped urban centres that transition quickly into wealthy cities (either urban powerhouses or sprawling metropolises).

In this scenario, the city’s development may outpace the overall growth of its country, creating problems like a widening economic gap and uncontrolled migration from rural areas.

Stable governance is deemed vital to handle these issues for cities on this path.

The second scenario, “late-stage growth”, describes a city that undergoes a similar population and GDP per capita growth, but at a later stage in its development, after it increases in size and has put in place extensive physical infrastructure.

These cities may struggle with energy efficiency, as retrofitting existing infrastructure can be both expensive and complex.

Meanwhile, economic migration may put further stress on the available systems.

To handle this type of urbanisation, the report identifies the effective enforcing of policy and laws as key, because city strength and stability are essential for economic growth.

Needless to say, planning is essential, not to mention having a holistic picture in mind, particularly at the decision-making level.

“Careful planning will help achieve a more efficient, integrated use of resources,” Thomas said.

“Urban design is at the heart of efforts to create resiliency in those systems and services that are essential to our future well-being and prosperity.”

For more on New Lenses On Future Cities, visit