Cities: The Front Lines of Sustainability

“Our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said recently. This sentiment was at the heart of the session on urban environment and wellbeing, and reiterated by Xuemei Bai, Professor of Urban Environment and Human Ecology at the Australian National University and International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) Scientific Committee Member.

“This is now true more than ever before,” she said.

The evidence is undeniable: since 2009 more than half of humanity has lived in cities, and by 2050 three-fourths are projected to do so. The current pace of urbanization means that we will be adding a city of one million inhabitants every week, from now until 2050. And in the next 40 years, we will need to build as many facilities as we have done in the past 4,000 years just to cope with this expansion, according to Susanne Saltz, Head of the Secretary General’s Office, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.

In other words, we are becoming an urban world, and urban wellbeing will increasingly dominate the discussion human wellbeing.

But, at the same time, urban wellbeing is also intimately connected to planetary wellbeing. Although cities cover a mere 3% of the world’s land surface, they are responsible for 78% of the world’s carbon emissions, 60% of global residential water use, and 76% of world industrial use of wood. What happens in cities has major implications for the rest of the world.

“We need a new narrative connecting human health and planetary health,” said Dr Anthony Capon. As the dominant form of human habitation, cities lie at the very intersection of human and planetary wellbeing. Thus how we design and govern our cities may well dictate both.

The good news is that cities are also opportunities. Study after study shows that cities have much higher levels of human development than rural areas. As centers of culture, innovation and knowledge, they also offer huge potential for collective action.

But effective management is not easy. Cities are highly complex systems. Echoing a theme which has come up repeatedly at the Forum, panelists said that managing cities well would require working across all sectors and disciplines to address the system as a whole.

Moreover, no two cities are alike – which means that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What we need instead, according to Capon, is adaptive management that evolves and changes to suit the unique circumstances of each urban environment.

Case study: Mongolia

Mongolia faces tough challenges on these issues. The capital, Ulan Bator, has grown rapidly in recent years due to heavy rural migration, and without urban planning the impact has led to chronic air pollution and traffic problems. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution results in 1,600 deaths every year, and is fuelling premature death, lung and heart problems and chronic bronchitis.

“In the future, cities will have to go from being consumptive systems to being productive systems,” said Suzanne Saltz, Head of the Secretary General’s Office, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.

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