More than half of the world’s population already lives in an urban environment and the trend is increasing. This makes cities the most important strategic factor in sustainable development and a green economy. International agreements and policies must be applicable at the urban level for maximum results.
Cities play a major role in consumption and production. Greenhouse gas emissions, waste generation and poverty are the result of a concentration of population, activity and resource use. This concentration also brings a great potential to improve efficiency and a broad spectrum solutions to sustainability goals. Cities are dynamic centers for change and creativity where structural transformation is constantly taking place. These processes can be directed toward urban sustainability by directly involving diverse stakeholders.
The Three Pillars of Sustainability
The three pillars of sustainability are the social, environmental and economic goals. Achieving those goals for a sustainable urban transformation needs three key elements: Governance and planning; innovation and business; and lifestyles and consumption.
Governance and government are not the same thing. Governance refers to the meat and potatoes of domestic negotiation: debating issues, resolving conflicts, power struggles and interactions on international, national, regional and local levels. Government refers to the formal political, legal structures and systems, under which a state or territory is organized.
Effective strategic planning and integration is critical. It requires connectivity across sectors to ensure empowerment, engagement and collaboration. For planning to be effective, it must address three challenges:
- Policies should first be ambitious but remain politically and economically realistic.
- Policies must be formed quickly and with flexibility to meet rapidly changing conditions.
- Contradictory policies must be retired or they detract from focus and delay progress.
Creative innovation and clean technology are a dominant component of a green economy. They also stimulate competitiveness. Thinking outside the box should be encouraged. Sustainable economies must encourage symbiotic relationships between the industry, government, research and educational sectors. The harmony between these sectors hinges on equity and sustainability.
With innovation and technology, over-consumption does not have to accompany prosperity. Creating visions of sustainable lifestyles can bring into focus better designs, support and governance for sustainable cities and improved well-being.
Informed and intelligently designed cities can respond to the major environmental, social and economic challenges of sustainability. Time is short. We should not expect national governments and international governance to move quickly. On the other hand, cities are a bottom-up approach. Over the next three decades, how cities develop and manage urban infrastructure will determine if they are a force for destruction or a primary source of ecological renewal and prosperity.
“As the twig is bent, the tree is inclined,” wrote Alexander Pope.
The world will move toward a more sustainable and greener economy as cities take up the torch of global leadership.