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Arup thought-leader calls for participation in sustainable urban development

The organizers of Rio+20 are opening up the dialogue on sustainable development in a fresh way prior to the official conference in June. Rio+20 Sustainable Development Dialogues is a new online platform that allows users to create a profile and participate in an open and democratic discussion around the issues that matter most to them, from sustainable cities to food security to oceans. The aim is to bring together civil society, the scientific community and academia to contribute ideas and suggestions on sustainable development. Conclusions and recommendations from the Dialogues will be conveyed directly to the Heads of State and Government gathering in Rio June 20-22.  It is a way for everyone to get involved – and be heard — in the Rio+20 discussions.

On the Dialogues site, Dr. Chris Luebkeman, Director, Global Foresight and Innovation at Arup, posted this piece on the urgent challenges and myriad opportunities found in sustainable cities. He would know – last year, Arup and C40 released a report and infographic on the climate actions being undertaken by the world’s megacities; and both remain committed to delivering the data and analysis that underpins effective climate action planning and measurement.

Check out this post from Dr. Luebkeman and then join the conversation https://www.riodialogues.org/login.

“Participation is what shapes our world. We all have significant roles to play; we can choose to participate in making positive change or stand idly by as others make decisions that will impact the future of our planet. Sustainable urban innovation is only possible with visionary leadership and a vital citizenry who are empowered to co-create their own sustainable and resilient communities.” Dr. Chris Luebkeman

The Challenge

Global population continues to grow at a frenetic pace with estimates projecting urban citizens to make up two-thirds of the world’s expected 9.3 billion inhabitants by 2050. Most of this anticipated growth will be concentrated in the cities and towns of the less-developed regions of the world. Asia, in particular, is projected to see its urban population increase by 1.4 billion, Africa by 900 million, and Latin America and the Caribbean by 200 million. The challenges that this brings are untold.

The systems that are required for citizens to sustainably thrive in their urban communities are still evolving, at best. Most exemplars are one-offs and culturally dependent; our challenge is to find and share solutions that can undergo an acclimation to make them appropriate for their culture. The great challenge is to enable a global urban movement from survival mode, to one of “thrival”.

Sustainable urbanization is a fundamental global challenge for communities that find themselves at either end of the development pyramid. To meet the needs of citizens, urban life is supported by a number of equally important systems: wellness, mobility, nourishment, entertainment, energy, waste, water, information, shelter, commerce, learning, security and governance. Success today and in the future will depend on how well integrated and resilient these systems are. These systems are well documented separately, but the implications and potential manifestations of future constraints are less well documented.

As we continue to work towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, we will also see an increased desire to own and consume. This exacerbates increasing global inequality and challenges the carrying capacity of the planet and local capacity to deal the implications. So perhaps the big questions huddle around the issue of resilience: how can our urban communities become more resilient? What will this mean in the context of resource limitations? How can citizens be empowered and emboldened to innovate their own sustainable solutions? What is the infrastructure that is not just needed, but desired, to encourage the innovation that every community will need at every level? Is it an issue of access to knowledge? How different are the perspectives from both ends of the pyramid? How will the potential of innovation blowback be harnessed? How should we govern our growing urban metropolis? How can the timescales required for systemic urban change be reconciled with the short-mindedness of most democratic political cycles? Are 19th century institutions still fit for purpose in the 21st century?

Initiatives for Action

Future generations will come to depend upon our resolving these questions efficiently and effectively, soon. Fortunately, there are examples of success to be found. Three are illustrated below:

  • Urban leadership: Many assume that the future of governance lies in the city-state rather than the nation-state. No matter the view on this matter, metropolitan areas shape the world’s social, cultural, technological, environmental and economic agendas. With this comes an opportunity for elected mayors to take responsibility for their city and implement sustainable policies. During the 1990s, London, Tokyo and Seoul all elected mayors for the first time in modern history and have sent in place a legacy of long-term investment. For example, Mayor Bloomberg and the leadership team of New York created PlaNYC2030, which is an exemplar of a strategic and tactical future roadmap. Similar initiatives have been undertaken around the world; each one now having started the dialogue on how to make their city more sustainable and resilient in the face of global change. This is a crucial first step that every community should take. It depends upon both good leaders and active citizens to then walk the path of positive change.
  • Mobility infrastructure: Mobility is fundamentally about the access of urban citizens to opportunity of all kinds. This is crucial to the health and well-being of all individuals. Many examples are found around the world of culturally sensitive solutions. Bogota has been a pioneer of bus rapid transit (BRT) and has inspired other cities to implement similar systems. The City’s CicloRuta is one of the most extensive cycle path networks in the world, connecting with major BRT routes, parks and community centres, helping to provide a means of transport for all citizens and recovering public space. This has been an oft-quoted example of contemporary urban mobility innovation and should be taken as an inspiration.
  • Collaborative Consumption: The new generations of urban citizens have different expectations in different parts of the world. In some, there is a rapid explosion in swapping, sharing, bartering, trading and renting of assets of all kinds. This has been enabled by mobile- and app-based peer-to-peer marketplaces in ways and on a scale not previously considered. Two mobility examples that have been spreading are car clubs and city cycle hire. Car sharing clubs, like Zip Car or carsharing-Berlin, are found in over 600 cities in over 20 countries around the world. These groups reduce overall car use, vehicle miles travelled and thus carbon emissions and the total number of vehicles parked in urban areas. This is freeing up space to make other urban amenities for cycling or walking, street trees and/or public open space (www.carsharing.net). At the other end of the mobility scale are bike-sharing schemes. Hundreds of cities have implemented cycle hire schemes in recent years to encourage residents and visitors to make short journeys around the city by bike, reducing the pressure on the congested road network and overcrowded public transport. The City of Zhuzhou, Hunan Province, is reporting in the Rednet News an average of 150,000 daily trips on its 13,000 bikes. That’s 11.5 trips/bike/day on a system whose age can be counted in months. The popularity of the schemes has been phenomenal. Sharing resources in this way can extend into many other aspects of city life to make cities less resource hungry and more sustainable.

What to Do

Action in – and for – sustainable urban innovation depends on everyone. We need to consider that every citizen should have a voice in what is happening to them and their community. It is vital that the leadership and citizenry be empowered to co-create sustainable and resilient communities. Globally, these communities come in such a broad spectrum of sizes, scales, shapes and densities that singular recommendations could be perceived as mundane. Yet, there are a few which are crucial: every mayor should work towards the development of a strategic vision that is created transparently with input from all stakeholders from citizen to politician, technician to industry and local business to global capital. The strategic vision should remain steadfast and constant during times of political, social and financial change or tumult and should endure beyond election cycles.

With expected growth comes a need for prior planning, which includes an urban life with accessibility and mobility for all, with the intent of levelling socioeconomic inequality. This means formal regional plans for growth and policies and financing to support them.

An explicit and implicit support of gathering urban data for global comparison would encourage transparency in behavioural conditions to allow global institutions to provide neutral comparators to help assess success and provide access to the best thinking in the world to those communities that would not otherwise have it.

It is a rare circumstance in history when such pressing needs place demands on business, citizen and government, which, if done properly, can result in positive long-term growth, profitability and resource efficiency. [1]

[1] http://www.nyc.gov/html/planyc2030/html/home/home.shtml