In recent days I have talked with many people about next week’s World Urban Forum in Vancouver and one thing that has impressed me during these conversations is that the word ‘sustainable’ when applied in the context of cities has many different meanings.
Perhaps because I have spent most of my adult life examining various issues surrounding urban sustainability I assume everyone understands what I mean when referring to the “sustainable city’.
Let me clarify this point, with particular reference to what we will be trying to achieve at next week’s World Urban Forum.
In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development Sustainability defined ‘sustainability’ as ‘the ability to meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs’.
In one form or another, that definition has been used in countless essays, commentaries and policy positions on matters ranging from land use and the built environment of large cities, to silviculture and forest management practices, or to fossil fuel exploitation and energy conservation. The common thread in each case is that the earth’s resources are finite and we are using faster than they can be replaced.
I don’t disagree, but I venture to say that this definition probably means little to someone living on the streets of a large urban centre somewhere in the developing world wondering where the next scrap of food might come from, or how to get out of the rain, or whether the water in a nearby ditch is safe to drink.
To me urban sustainability deals with a very broad array of issues that can be summed in the phrase ‘what is means to be a human being’.
In 1976 at the First UN Conference on Human Settlements (the event that led to the creation of the UN HABITAT Programme), a unified concept of human settlements was put forward for the first time that brought together many elements previously considered separately - housing, building, planning, governance, environment, etc., and their relationship to basic human values and social development.
The Communiqué that emerged from that event defined human settlements in the totality of the human community - whether city, town or village - with all the social, material, organizational, spiritual and cultural elements that sustain it. It dealt with the whole of life and all that mankind can achieve - happiness, justice and dignity - or all that mankind suffers - rejection, despair and deepening violence.
In my view, when we talk of urban sustainability, we have to talk in terms that are inclusive of these issues.
Sustainability in the context of the urban agenda means meeting the basic needs of all residents of a city for shelter, clean air and water, food, health, safety and security, mobility, economic opportunity, education, and the right to participate in the process of decision making with respect to these things.
That may seem like a very tall order, and I will be the first to admit that in many parts of the developed and developing world, we are not meeting those needs. But this is no reason to stop trying.
I also believe that just as the challenges of urban sustainability are great, so too are the opportunities!
For example, if half the urban infrastructure that will exist in the world of 2050 is to be built in the next 45 years, does that not present an opportunity to design, construct, operate and maintain new cities that are better than the old ones?
If, as is projected that by 2050 virtually all of the world’s population growth will be in urban areas, does this not mean we should be listening to what people have to say about what is right or wrong about the places in which they live?
Answers to these and many other questions will unfold in Vancouver next week, and I have every confidence they could literally change the world as we know it in terms of urban sustainability.
Over the next 10 days 8,000 people from every corner of the earth will gather in Vancouver searching for workable solutions to the enormous environmental, social and economic problems that unchecked urbanization has brought upon us.
Their deliberations on urban sustainability will be guided by one overriding imperative: ‘how to improve the everyday life of people living in cities.’
Urban sustainability is much more than protecting the environment of cities, or constructing new energy efficient buildings, or providing new civic infrastructure, or keeping the city clean, or clearing the streets of garbage. These are important matters, but they are not the full picture. In addition to these and other fundamental, urban sustainability is also about engaging those most affected by life in the city in the process of deciding their own futures.
It is about being human in the city, nothing more and nothing less.