The sustainable cities agenda

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Courtesy of Article 13

Cities are often called economic powerhouses.  Even countries with large agricultural sectors need the activities that are generated in cities to maintain flourishing economies.  As the world’s population grows, so does the number of urban dwellers.  This in turn has significant sustainable development implications for our resource-limited planet.  Given that cities are such a fundamental part of our existence, it stands to reason that improving the sustainability of our cities should rank highly amongst our priorities.

This year we mark the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit with the Rio +20 Conference, and with one of the key Conference themes being cities it is reasonable to expect that awareness of sustainable cities will grow throughout 2012.

In this feature, we examine some of the key issues and themes underpinning the sustainable cities agenda.  First, we remind ourselves of the global context and reflect on the terminology, before introducing you to a range of frameworks, networks & tools available to anyone wanting to participate in communities of practice related to sustainability issues in cities.  We then look at initiatives from across the globe that are making inroads into sustainability issues in urban areas based on astute leadership and collaboration at various levels of government and within NGOs, corporates and/or grassroots communities.

Growing population, diminishing resources

The backdrop is a world with an ever-growing population that reached 7 billion on 31 October 2011, and some predictions saying it could reach 9 billion by 2045.

It’s a world where, since 2008, more of us are living in cities than in rural areas, and by 2050 it’s likely that 70% of us will be living in urban areas.1

Further increasing the complexity of our world is the fact that people are living longer and consuming more, a major concern given that many cities are already unable to cater for even the most basic needs of their poorest citizens.  This also makes cities responsible for a large proportion of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and consuming the majority of the world’s precious resources.

All of this is occurring on a planet where resources are becoming increasingly scarce and degraded, and more frequent and severe weather events are signalling that climate change is becoming a reality.

Cities – sustainable & mega

There is no universally agreed definition for what a sustainable city should be.  However, the Brundtland Commission’s often quoted definition for sustainable development provides a useful insight: sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Sustainable cities, therefore, take a long term approach to community development, striving to enhance the local environment and quality of life and developing a local economy that supports both thriving human and ecological systems.  The social network for sustainability, Wiser Earth, has determined that sustainable cities are “characterised by improved public health and a better quality of life for all the residents by limiting waste, preventing pollution, maximizing conservation, promoting efficiency, and developing healthy regional economic development and vibrant communities.  Integrated planning and design are key elements of developing sustainable cities and communities.”2

The Hallmarks of a sustainable city report suggests five features to look out for when assessing whether or not a city is sustainable:

  • An appetite for change
  • Leaders who can think long term
  • Working across administrative boundaries
  • Freedom to control land and assets
  • Complete focus on whole-life value.3

A significant trend within the global move towards urbanisation that will be a critical factor within the sustainable cities agenda is the growth of megacities.  A megacity is broadly defined as a continuous urban area with a population of at least 10 million, although some definitions also incorporate population density measures.  The definition tends to be controversial making consensus on how many megacities there are difficult to achieve.

According to National Geographic Magazine, there are now 21 megacities, a significant increase since 1975 when there were only three.  Twelve of these megacities are located in Asian developing countries, with seven of these – Tokyo, Mumbai, Shanghai, Beijing, Delhi, Kolkata and Dhaka – ranking as the largest megacities globally.4  Urbanisation in Asia means that the characteristics of cities are changing and becoming more difficult to categorise.  David Pilling, Asia Editor for The Financial Times, points out the difficulty of classifying megacities by making the point that “most are poorer, grimier and lacking in Tokyo’s stupendous public transport”.5

Owing to the sheer scale of megacities, they are at greater risk of not remaining sustainable than smaller cities.  Authorities at all levels face increasing uncertainty about how they will be able to provide all of their citizens, including the most desperately poor, with access to basic needs, such as food, water, energy and healthcare.  Sea level rises and the increased frequency of natural disasters also provide great challenges.6

Frameworks, networks & tools

A number of frameworks, networks and tools have been developed at global, national and regional levels to enable knowledge sharing, collaboration and benchmarking of best practice on sustainable city initiatives and challenges.  Examples include:

  • ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability – ICLEI is an international association of local governments as well as national and regional local government organisations who have made a commitment to sustainable development.  ICLEI is the local government group organising partner at Rio +20 and so, with cities a core theme of the Conference, is heavily involved in preparation for the Conference in June 2012.  Further details are available in our Rio +20 case study.
  • C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) – This group of 58 cities is committed to tackling climate change locally in order to have an impact globally.
  • World Health Organization Healthy Cities project – This global movement engages local governments in health development to ensure health and wellbeing are prioritised by cities.  Healthy City networks have been established in all six WHO regions.  The WHO European Healthy Cities Network is currently focused on three core themes: caring and supporting environments, healthy living and healthy urban design.
  • Urban Infrastructure Initiative (UII) – Started by the WBCSD (World Business Council for Sustainable Development) in 2010, this initiative brings together companies from diverse sectors to work with authorities in key cities across China, East Asia, Europe, Japan, India, Latin America and the USA.  Interdisciplinary UII teams will help the defined cities to develop an integrated action plan supporting infrastructure development and upgrades.
  • The Sustainable Cities Index (administered by Forum for the Future) – This annual index tracks the progress on sustainability of Britain’s 20 largest cities.  The index benchmarks environmental performance, quality of life and future-proofing.
  • Green City Indices – A series of regional indices based on research conducted by the Environmental Intelligence Unit for Siemens.  The research compares cities based on their environmental performance in the following categories: energy and CO2, land use and buildings, transport, waste, water, sanitation, air quality and environmental governance.  To date, Siemens has released indices on Africa, Asia, Europe, Germany, Latin America and US & Canada.
  • 2degrees Smart Cities Working Group – 2degrees, a sustainability community of practice, has created this working group to help cities, their citizens and stakeholders to tackle sustainability issues.  Members can access and contribute topical materials, participate in online discussions and attend webinars.
  • World Sustainable Capitals (WSC) – Instigated by the Abu Dhabi Planning Council, Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development and World Economic Forum, this initiative will build a network of capitals committed to economic, social, environmental and cultural sustainability.
  • The Megacities Foundation – Beginning as a UNESCO initiative in the Netherlands, the Megacities Foundation serves as a local and international platform of knowledge development and exchange in order to explore a sustainable future for megacities.  The Foundation is currently exploring the unique challenges faced in planning at the scale of megacities.
  • Urban Age – a programme centred on annual conferences, research and publications, jointly organised by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society and designed to investigate the spatial and social dynamics of cities.  Cities that have been investigated to date include New York, Shanghai, Johannesburg, Mumbai, Chicago and Hong Kong.
  • EMBARQ – Established in 2002, EMBARQ is a sustainable transport network that aims to improve the quality of life in cities by facilitating the development of environmentally and financially sustainable urban transport systems.  EMBARQ staff run five Centres for Sustainable Transport, located in Mexico, Brazil, India, Turkey and the Andean Region. They bring together relevant stakeholders from across government, business and civil society to support the transportation planning and implementation processes.

Having explored some of the key features of sustainable cities and the opportunities for connecting with other organisations working on the sustainable city agenda, we will now turn our attention to some of the key focus areas and notable examples of cities and companies taking action in this space.


  1. 7 Billion, National Geographic Magazine (a special year-long series on population, sponsored by Du Pont), 2011
  2. Wiser Earth definition of sustainable cities [accessed January 2012]
  3. Hallmarks of a sustainable city, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), 2009
  4. 7 Billion, National Geographic Magazine (a special year-long series on population, sponsored by Du Pont), 2011
  5. Pilling, D, Megacities, The Financial Times, 4 November 2011
  6. Hunt, J & Yuguo, Li, Megacities at risk with growing population, The Jerusalem Post, 26 October 2011

© Article 13 - January 2012

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