Discussion round-up: what makes a sustainable city?

פורסם: 1 במרץ 2012, 6:25 על ידי: Sustainability Org   [ עודכן 1 במרץ 2012, 6:25 ]
  • guardian.co.uk, Friday 24 February 2012 17.39 GMT
    • Urban sustainability presents big challenges but is also of critical importance
    • Read the highlights of our recent live discussion

    For the full discussion, click here
    Developing world cities face different sustainability challenges to cities in the developed world. Photograph: Alamy

    Is a sustainable city an oxymoron?

    The scale of change required in cities is vast and the rate at which this change is happening will need to dramatically increase if the challenges presented by ecological, societal and economic sustainability are to be met. One participant suggested that the size of this challenge is so great that visions of sustainable cities are often unrealistic and unattainable.

    An interesting view on this is to think about the concept of a sustainable city as normative, in the sense that it is based on opinions and values and therefore difficult to define. Scenario and futures-based studies can help with this and create positive visions, which have the power to create a sense of future which can be an enabler for change.

    Cites are the only model of concentrated human existence and evidence suggests that low density living is not a sustainable option, when combined with highly manufactured lifestyles. From this perspective, sustainable cities have to become a reality, and an important factor in this will be the alignment of costs and benefits and carrots and sticks for residents.

    New buildings versus retrofitting

    In the UK 80% of buildings that will be in use in 2050 are already built and this statistic is similar for other developed world cities. This points to the key role that retrofitting has to play in contributing to urban sustainability.

    At city level, strategic focus should be on retrofitting both buildings and energy, waste and water infrastructure. Challenges related to this include access to funding, minimising disruption for residents and integrating sustainability into standards and legislation. New technologies, for example spray-on PV, can play an important part in providing the tools for low-carbon retrofitting.

    City growth and competitiveness

    Cities in the developing world are facing the dual challenge of dealing with the huge growth in the numbers of urban poor, whilst also retaining the key skills and private capital that enable them to compete at the global level.

    There is an opportunity for developing cities to gain a competitive edge over their developed counterparts if they are able to face these challenges head on. One way to do this is through leapfrog technologies such as Bus Rapid Transit. Pioneered by a developing city, this technology is now allowing residents access to cheap, quick and efficient public transport.

    Solutions should be tailored to specific cities, as each has an individual set of challenges. Cities all over the world are striving to attract people from different cultures and wealth brackets. This means that the focus should be on creating inclusive, appropriate and durable infrastructure that improves people's lives.

    Cities compete globally for growth, industry, investment and jobs but they also need to solve the local problems facing their residents. An approach to meeting both challenges is to work out how local strengths can be made into a viable export.


    For urban sustainability to be realised, the public, private and third sectors need to work together. All solutions will require a combination of policy, private sector partnerships and innovation in technology, planning and thinking.

    Networks have an important part to play in sharing best and worst practice and enabling cities to learn from the experiences of others. Having said this, it is also important for cities to create their own bespoke approach that fits with the needs of their residents.

    City authorities are well placed to represent their residents needs in the national policy environment because they tend to see the link between public health, quality of life and the environment and the specific way in which these factors interact in their own city.

    Cities as systems

    A sustainable city is one where ecological, cultural and economic systems are aligned in such a way so as to support a sustainable urban future.

    Central to this is the recognition that the behaviour and mindset of city residents need to change just as much as buildings and infrastructure do. In addition, efforts to change the mindset of suppliers to the market can also lead to significant benefits in terms of sustainability.

    The power of information

    New networks and technologies present a huge opportunity in terms of making cities more sustainable through providing real-time information that can enable utility companies to better manage the grid, energy consumers to save power and transportation networks to run more efficiently.

    In the case of cross-sector partnerships, where participants are prepared be open source and recognise that everyone is on the same journey into the unknown, the potential provided by information can be realised.

    An open source approach can make information attractive and accessible to a whole range of stakeholders and help to ensure that city development is both sustainable and fit for purpose.

    Adaptable, sustainable infrastructure

    Cities need to become more adaptable and responsive, and one way to do this is to create temporary structures that can be adapted for alternative uses or removed entirely. An example of this approach can be seen in the temporary venues for some of the sporting events at the London 2012 Olympics.

    Conceptual masterplanning can play a key role in ensuring that city infrastructure is fit for purpose. The best way to do this is through a community driven process which includes the views and focuses on the needs of the full range of stakeholders.

    Planning can also have an effect on levels of crime and antisocial behaviour. Creating spaces that feel safe and encourage positive, vibrant behaviours is important to establishing a sense of place. In this way environmental design can be used as a crime prevention tool.

    Redefining the western model of development

    Traditionally, the western model of urban development has been based on growth and expansion but this trend cannot continue indefinitely and does not always make sense in the developing world context.

    Resources are not infinite which fundamentally mean that something about the current model of development needs to change. Having said that, a strategy of the developed world telling the developing world that it can't have access to the same resources and standard of living that the west has been enjoying has not been very successful.

    Making limited resources stretch whilst also improving living standards, presents a big challenge. Support for innovation and entrepreneurship are critical to meeting it and cities should ensure they create and maintain the space for new ideas to flourish. In addition, rather than telling the developing world what it cannot do, developed world cities should look to set an example and share best practice that can be used elsewhere.


    A sustainable city should be...

    • A place you want to be; a place of choice
    • A place you can afford to be in all currencies (carbon and money)
    • A place you want to stay and where people build social capital and a sense of community
    • Resilient, agile and adaptable to change

    The key factors that make up a sustainable city are...

    • resource efficiency
    • social and economic viability
    • diversity of neighbourhood and environment
    • leadership and vision
    • collaboration and partnership

    Some starting points are...

    • Set a shared vision that sets out the major challenges
    • Develop a set of metrics that can be used to judge progress
    • Set a strategic role for a chief information officer
    • Experiment with new partnerships
    • Realign financial innovation with real value

    This content is brought to you by Guardian Sustainable Business in association with Skanska. Produced by Guardian Business and Professional to a brief agreed with Skanska. Paid for by Skanksa. All editorial controlled and overseen by the Guardian.