Press Room

PennDesign’s Richard Weller to Deliver “Wakeup Call” for World’s Cities in Kuala Lumpur

Philadelphia—A sweeping United Nations initiative titled the New Urban Agenda aimed at improving the quality of life in the world’s fast-growing cities faces a critical test this month when government officials, activists, and academics gather in Kuala Lumpur for the World Urban Forum from February 7 - 13. The gathering is the first time that stakeholders will come together to work out how urban growth can be aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals for the year 2030, as ratified in the New Urban Agenda.

One roadmap to achieve those goals comes from Richard Weller, Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and professor and chair of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. His research team’s data visualizations, to be presented this week in Kuala Lumpur, show that the growth of cities globally is on a direct collision course with the world’s remaining biodiversity.

A project of The Ian L. McHarg Center at PennDesign, the study mapped data for over 400 cities in the world’s “biodiversity hotspots,” regions dense with species that are in danger of extinction. By overlaying urban growth forecasts for 2030 onto the habitats of endangered species, Hotspot Cities, as the study is titled, reveals that, unless leaders take control of urban sprawl, over 90 percent of cities will encroach upon the habitats of unique flora and fauna.

“This is a big wakeup call for these cities,” says Professor Weller, the study’s lead author. “They are so focused on their internal workings that they often overlook what’s happening at their periphery, and from an environmental perspective, that’s really where the action is.” Of the rationale behind the study, Weller explains, “Identifying the problem is the first step toward its mitigation.”

Weller emphasizes that the conflict between urban development and biodiversity not be understood in terms of “saving charismatic animals,” as the issue is sometimes framed by leading conservation NGOs. “Biodiversity is really a proxy for the health of the ecosystem as a whole,” he says. “If you don’t have a healthy ecosystem, you can’t have a healthy city. And if you don’t have a healthy city you won’t have healthy people. It’s that simple.”

More concerning to Weller and his research team, the McHarg Center study found that, across nearly all 400 cities in the world’s hotspots, there is a lack of planning to prevent the conflict. The study identifies some cities that are doing better than most in regard to planning for and protecting biodiversity, including Sydney, Perth, Cape Town, Sao Paulo, and Los Angeles.

As the world’s population increases, it is also increasingly shifting from rural to urban areas. “Directing this growth is the key,” says Weller. To do so, he recommends that representatives of the cities in the world’s biological hotspots come together to form a global alliance to develop demonstration projects that illustrate in practical ways how urban growth and biodiversity can co-exist. “Destructive sprawl is not a fait accompli,” says Weller. “This is a design and planning problem, and it can be solved.”

The mapping of the hotspot cities is available online at The accompanying report published by Penn IUR is at Weller's report is part of the paper series “UPenn: Current Research on Sustainable Urban Development” co-published by Penn IUR, the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, and Perry World House.

In the spirit of McHarg’s renowned philosophy for “Designing with Nature”, The Ian L. McHarg Center’s mission is to build on PennDesign’s position as a global leader in urban ecological design by bringing environmental and social scientists together with planners, designers, policy-makers, and communities to develop practical, innovative ways of improving the quality of life in the places most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.