Urban population now exceeds rural population globally, and 60–80% of global energy consumption by households, businesses, transportation, and industry occurs in urban areas. There is growing evidence that built-up infrastructure contributes to carbon emissions inertia, and that investments in infrastructure today have delayed climate cost in the future. Although the United Nations statistics include data on urban population by country and select urban agglomerations, there are no empirical data on built-up infrastructure for a large sample of cities. Here we present the first study to examine changes in the structure of the world's largest cities from 1999 to 2009. Combining data from two space-borne sensors—backscatter power (PR) from NASA's SeaWinds microwave scatterometer, and nighttime lights (NL) from NOAA's defense meteorological satellite program/operational linescan system (DMSP/OLS)—we report large increases in built-up infrastructure stock worldwide and show that cities are expanding both outward and upward. Our results reveal previously undocumented recent and rapid changes in urban areas worldwide that reflect pronounced shifts in the form and structure of cities. Increases in built-up infrastructure are highest in East Asian cities, with Chinese cities rapidly expanding their material infrastructure stock in both height and extent. In contrast, Indian cities are primarily building out and not increasing in verticality. This new dataset will help characterize the structure and form of cities, and ultimately improve our understanding of how cities affect regional-to-global energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.


Earth Sciences, Earth Systems Research Center

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Environmental Research Letters


IOP Publishing

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