Urban sustainability – how much of a challenge is it for the developed world?

The communities in which we live, especially larger towns and cities, are some of the most pressing cases for planning for a sustainable future, as we spend most of our lives in them and their environments affect our health and wellbeing. Much is said about the dire situation in developing nations, where city populations increase by millions annually, outstripping essential infrastructure provision, but the situation in richer countries seems to be less documented. The population decrease of cities in the developed world witnessed in 80s and early 90s has drawn to a close and many are choosing to move to either the inner cities or ever increasing satellite areas and suburbs of larger towns and cities. London is predicted to have a population of 8 million by 2015, an increase of almost half a million, while the populations of the US’ biggest cities, New York and Los Angeles, are predicted to climb from 16.5 million to 17.5 million and 13 million to almost 15 million respectively by the same date.

Even without population increases in urban centres, traffic and waste are on the increase all over the developed world. Cities have changed from fairly concentrated and identifiable entities into amorphous areas, sprawling into their hinterlands without visible borders between town and country.

What are the policies which need to be encouraged for cities in the developed world to become more sustainable?

I think there are policies required for the cities and also policy frameworks required from national governments, and the EU, if we’re talking about Europe, that need to be supportive to the policies in the city. When we look at policies for cities there are five points which need to be made.

The first point, and they are not in order of importance, starting to think of cities and city regions as ecosystems again, for example flows of energy, nutrients and other resources like finance and people. In this way of thinking we seek to close resource cycles, for example trying to minimise waste, which should guide a lot of city policy-making. The notion of the ecological footprint of a city [the area required to provide the resources and deal with the waste of a city] is a particularly good way of coming to terms with this way of thinking. For example, for London, an area 127 times the size of the city is required to provide for it. What sustainability is about is trying to reduce the size of the ecological footprint, through minimising waste and thinking about the resources you’re taking and where they’re coming from.

Secondly, there is a need to start measuring what is happening. Although many towns and cities use environmental indicator

"Although many towns and cities use environmental indicator measurements, sustainability indicators are little used"

measurements, sustainability indicators are little used. These are used in Bristol, however, where there is regular monitoring of how they are doing and where they are going with these issues. With this you need a baseline, for example, what the city was like in 1984 and then some sort of regular monitoring to know whether you are becoming more or less sustainable through indicators.

Thirdly, the issue of integration, which is a sustainability indicator to be thought of, not just in terms of the environment, but also the economy, and indeed democracy and culture. It requires organisations to be more joined up horizontally and vertically in policy making between, say councillors and city planners. For example, the people in charge of inward investment in a city’s economics department need to liase with people working in the environment department over the sustainability implications of new business.

Fourthly, there is a growing need for designing for sustainability in building, products and infrastructure in cities. This is not just in relation to new development but also in conservation and creation of public spaces, but also for living areas to become more sustainable, which is a big challenge, as most future planning for sustainability will be for cities which have already been built.

The fifth point concerns governance in cities, not only how they are led politically, but also how they organise the institutional arrangements in cities and how they relate to the public and private sectors, NGOs and citizens: eg how you build capacity in the community to allow people to join in this discussion on the future of the city. How Local Agenda 21 processes [way of involving local people in developing sustainability in communities born out of the Rio 92 conference] fit into forms of governance in the city is also crucial in deciding how sustainably successful a city will be.

Does devolved government help deliver more sustainability to a community?

In the regionalism that has come about over the last few years, there are opportunities to tackle some of the issues which cities cannot tackle on their own. With specific reference to bodies like the Greater London Authority, I think you do need such a vision for a city and being able to implement in a strategic way localised policies, for example on traffic policy, for large cities. Without these administrations it is a hopeless situation, such as was the case in London before it had a government.

Are there any cheap or quick fixes for cities to become more sustainable?

One of the most important cheap fixes is waste recycling, which in general in Britain we are not that good at, but there are some exceptions. Bath and Milton Keynes, with about 30% recycling rates, are good on a UK level at it, but not on the same scale as the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Germany. Energy conservation measures are also quite easily put in place – if you go to the colder parts of Europe they’ve done that years ago. In the UK, we have not insulated buildings as much as we should have done. Converting bus fleets to non-polluting fuel and changing street and traffic lights to diodes, which last about four times as long as normal bulbs, cost no more to put in, use less energy and are maintenance-free, are two other simple measures.

Which are the longer-term elements of sustainability which are most important to implement?

Some things which are more difficult to resolve are those involving the private sector for help and issues about how to proceed when economic issues are very difficult. Often, if you have a city in decline with high unemployment, there are pressures to do almost anything to get jobs into a city, which is understandable, but it means that the sustainability agenda goes out the window. I chair the European Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign, which has about 1,400 towns and cities in it, which aims to help in such difficult circumstances.

Is it right to take punitive measures to discourage car use in cities?

I think it is justified as long as there is, in advance of the measures being brought in, investment in attractive and comfortable public

"It is hopeless being punitive without having good public transport systems first"

transport, with very good accessibility. It is hopeless being punitive without having good public transport systems first.

What are the biggest threats to sustainability?

There are differences in the ability to move forward on this agenda. At the moment many European developed towns and cities are doing quite a lot and have achieved quite a lot, compared with 10 years ago. In American cities there has been very little attempt. One major threat globally is that in many countries which are urbanising rapidly, such as China and India, there is a rush to model cities on a western style of city we’ve had for a long time, rather than jump to a new model we may be striving towards. Edge cities, those where new development, such as shopping centres, takes place far from community centres, also threaten sustainability, as although they tend to be highly successful economically, tend to be totally dependent on the car. They have also lacked any consideration for rapid growth in relation to housing, employment and retail and can have a negative impact on the city centre, where you get an effect called the donut, with growing edge cities on the outside and, in effect, a hole in the middle. Many cities in the Western world are moving towards these models. Whereas, in Britain, where we are doing some research looking at edge cities, we are looking at ways to retrofit those areas which have not been planned.

What is the situation with regard to sustainability in US cities?

I don’t think that US cities have taken enough action and haven’t pushed to take enough action in relation to central government policies,

"What is complicated in the United States is that you have to counter a mind-set which allows freedom"

or indeed to state policies, although it does vary from state to state. There are some cities, like Seattle, which have done a lot to try and be sustainable, and there are other cities, including many of the large ones, where nothing has been done at all. What is complicated in the US is that you have to counter a mind-set, which allows freedom. It may be that the States require some kind of controls or regulation in respect to how you go about developing a city.

Is there one city you would point out as excelling in attaining sustainability?

There are a few cities. Freiberg in Germany is a classic example of a city where in many ways, transport, energy conservation, waste

"A city which has done an enormous amount is Stockholm in Sweden"

recycling, green spaces, cycle routes, have been encouraged. A larger example of a city which has done an enormous amount is Stockholm in Sweden with 1.5 million inhabitants. The city council there has replaced all its vehicles with ones run on electricity, biofuel or biogas, which comes from the sewage works in Stockholm. The council persuaded the two biggest petrol companies in Sweden to change 10 of the garages in central Stockholm to multi-fuel retailers. It has changed all the buses in the city to be run on ethanol, moved all heavy-duty vehicles to biogas, set up a lot of car pools across the city, put diodes in all the lighting, installed district heating systems, has very high levels of energy conservation and provided electric goods distribution vehicles for the city centres, so that lorries can only enter up to a certain point and then goods are broken down into certain groups and loaded onto these vehicles. Central government is also pumping a lot of money into these measures, including regenerating an old industrial area for 15,000 people to live in with its own biogas system produced from sewage, and where building materials used and all demolished materials were all transported by boat. Water is also recycled in Stockholm, with ‘grey water’ – that used for say washing hands – is used for flushing toilets, and other uses. All buildings in the city have also been through an environmental audit.

Can big cities then do equally as well in terms of sustainability as smaller ones?

I think it is more difficult, especially when you get to cities the size of Tokyo, which has been trying to make a difference. When you get to smaller cities like Freiburg with about 200,000 people it is relatively easy. Stockholm shows larger cities just what can be achieved.

What help is available to city planners and councils on sustainability issues?

In Europe, the EU’s Sustainable Cities and Towns campaign and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI). The latter group also assists North American cities.


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