Sustainable cities become a fit place for everyone

It’s time for a calculated revolution, says May East
The UN projects that 70 per cent of the worlds population will live in urban areas by 2050. Picture: APThe UN projects that 70 per cent of the worlds population will live in urban areas by 2050. Picture: AP
The UN projects that 70 per cent of the worlds population will live in urban areas by 2050. Picture: AP

The future of the biosphere – indeed, of humanity – will be determined in the cities and towns of the 21st century. Cities cover a mere 4 per cent of the planet’s surface, but account for 60-80 per cent of global energy consumption, 75 per cent of carbon emissions and more than 75 per cent of the world’s natural resources. With the United Nations Human Settlement Programme, UN-Habitat, projecting that 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, there simply cannot be a sustainable world without sustainable cities.

Urbanisation has been accompanied by growing numbers of urban poor converging in slums, in inequitable and often life-threatening conditions that put increased pressure on the local environment.

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This is the case in one of the largest slums of South America, Vila Brasilandia, where CIFAL has been working for the past three years. This slum, with a population larger than Dundee, has been under pressure to find ways to reconcile deficient housing and the sustainable use of natural resources.

The Forest Invades the City

Bordering one of the remaining green belts of the 22 million people megalopolis Sao Paulo, it has been encroaching into the urban forest for many years. It recently launched “The Forest Invades the City”, an innovative campaign designed to lessen its impact on the neighbouring forest by planting native trees, installing grass roofs, and propagating edible plants in abandoned squares.

This is just one of many innovative projects taking root around the world; urban centres are where the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost, and we find today an increasing number of cities and towns as hubs of innovation. Cities are often the crossroads where cultures meet, contest, evolve, and change. They are sites of social transformation. They represent and offer rich opportunities for creativity, new ideas, and synergy between groups.

This is particularly the case with the Transition Towns movement launched in 2006. Rooted in an understanding of the need to become less dependent on fossil fuels in an age of rising energy prices, the Transition Towns model offers practical ways for communities to manage their energy use, and become more self-sufficient. There are already more than 300 official Transition locations across the world and nearly 8,000 communities are considering or adopting the tools developed there. Transition is happening in highly diverse communities across the world – from towns in Australia to neighbourhoods in Portugal, from slums in Brazil to islands off Canada.

Recognising the extent of the challenge, UN Habitat is proposing the inclusion of a specific target on sustainable cities and human settlements in the UN’s emerging Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It would promote cities that are environmentally sustainable, socially inclusive, economically productive and resilient. This goal, if approved, would build upon the Millennium Development Goal (Target 7D), which aimed to “achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100m slum dwellers by 2020”.

A revolution in urban problem solving

While the topic of sustainability within cities is attracting a large amount of attention, the challenges presented by urbanisation are complex and context-specific. Success across the spectrum, from villages to metropolis, will require deep engagement and nothing less than a revolution in urban problem solving.

To truly make a difference, an urban SDG would need to mobilise the greatest range of voices and experiences of all urban actors, including local authorities, urban NGOs, planners and community members. It should be bold, courageous and provocative. Above all, it should promote a shift from ad hoc developments to long-term masterplans that deliver a clear vision of a positive, integrated urban future where no one is left behind.

What we most need is to unleash the creativity we know exists, deepen grass roots participation and redirect funding streams to support urban innovation projects. There are already some fantastic examples – London’s “living walls” to combat flooding; public transport in Linkoping, Sweden, fueled by municipal waste; rainwater harvested to enhance the water supply in Chennai, India, to name but a few among hundreds of initiatives led by Transitioning communities determined to redesign the human presence in urban sites.

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To win the sustainable development battle, nothing less than a calculated revolution in the way we plan, live, do business and seek recreation is required. For all present and future city-dwellers, there is nothing more important than achieving the critical goal of a sustainable city for all.

• May East is CEO of CIFAL Scotland, a United Nations Institute for Training and Research sustainability centre based in Edinburgh, see