Our Cities: Planning for Sustainability

Vancouver, Canada (GLOBE-Net) - Sustainability is a broad concept often associated with environmental conservation. But for today’s cities, the concept of sustainability extends to all areas of municipal governance: social, economic, cultural, and environmental. By applying an integrated approach to sustainability issues cities not only can become more livable, they can also become more prosperous.

Cities provide the ideal template for changing the way human activity interacts with the natural environment. Cities – the focal points of civilization - consume the most resources and produce the most waste; but they also create the most wealth for our societies. Because of the all encompassing nature of municipal governance, cities have the power to change the manner in which these activities are carried out. In doing so, they have the means to achieve sustainability in all its dimensions.

As Charles Kelly, Commissioner General of the World Urban Forum III puts it, “sustainability is an integrated approach encompassing the economic, the environmental, the social and the participation of the people most affected, in a horizontal fashion. From an operational point of view, sustainability has to be addressed inside of a specific space – like a city or a region. It is place-based.”

Contrary to some perceptions, cities can be very ‘green’ places in which to live. Manhattan for example, the most densely packed area of New York - one of the world’s largest mega cities - uses half of the electricity and far less gasoline for transport per capita than the national US average.

But energy efficiency is not the whole story. The ‘concrete jungles’ found in many cities – legacies of past mistakes in urban design - have saddled many cities with acres of contaminated land; inadequate waste management facilities; inefficient water/wastewater systems; and highly segregated and unequal distribution of opportunities for economic growth. Such cities experience an overall decline in quality of life marked by decreased income, lack of cultural vibrancy, and increased risks of environment related health concerns.

It is possible to turn the situation around however, and municipal leaders and urban planners around the world are revitalizing their cities by integrating municipal governance issues under frameworks of sustainability. Chicago, an industrial city marked by freeways and endless concrete, has become an unlikely candidate for the ‘greenest’ city in the United States. Through a concerted effort and strong will from Mayor Richard Daley, Chicago has become the nation’s leader in urban sustainability.

Since Daley took office, Chicago has created or planned over 2 million square feet of green roofs, more than all other US cities combined. Over 500, 000 trees have been planted; numerous new green spaces have been created; and cleanups have begun on acres of contaminated lands.

The city has harnessed the enthusiasm for sustainability and improved quality of life into economic gains, attracting two solar-panel manufacturers into the area to take advantage of a growth industry. Boeing Aircraft moved its corporate offices to Chicago in part because its employees wanted to live there. Over 100, 000 people have moved into the city, tens of thousands of jobs have been created, a building boom is underway, and industries such as conventions and tourism are bringing billions into the local economy.

Chicago still faces challenges, but citizens and business alike are excited about reinventing their urban landscape and creating a thriving living space. As Mayor Daley told delegates at GLOBE 2006, investments are evaluated from all sides, and the integrated nature of policy making has helped garner widespread support for the city’s goals.

In Canada, Vancouver has used the concepts of ‘livability’ and sustainability as key planning tenets for several years. A key feature of the City of Vancouver’s success with respect to sustainability is exemplified in measures taken to preserve the diversity and increase the density of the downtown core. By creating a place where people can work and live, where parks, shopping centers, office towers and apartment buildings co-exist, Vancouver has reduced the need for transport and made water, power and waste management more efficient. Like Chicago, the city is also experiencing a building boom.

Livability is what makes Vancouver stand out above other urban centers worldwide. The city has been rated at or near the top of the list of “Best Places in Which to Live’ for many years. But Vancouver’s reputation as a great place in which to live did not just happen. It was the consequence of decisions taken years ago not to divide the city into isolated areas separated by freeways and high density traffic corridors.

It also stems from the practice of factoring sustainability into each major municipal decision. “Sustainable Vancouver” is defined as a community meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This is achieved through extensive community participation in the decision-making process and weighing short and long term economic, social and ecological impacts of all major investment decisions. The city also has adopted a formal Climate Change Action Plan to reduce climate changing greenhouse gases and energy consumption.

While cities like Vancouver and Chicago still face many difficulties, they do serve as examples of how less sustainable cities might approach the process of change.

Cities are essentially large public utilities. While services delivered may vary from country to country, by and large municipal governments run the roads, the water and sewerage systems, the public transit systems, the solid waste disposal systems etc., and set the rules for land management, urban planning, and regulate building codes. As such, their capacity to learn from each other is enormous.

The World Urban Forum taking place in Vancouver June 19-23rd, 2006 provides an excellent opportunity for municipal leaders from many different cultures and regions to do just that. They will have many opportunities to share information and ideas on how to make their cities more environmentally sustainable and livable.

The entire focus of the Forum will be on practical approaches for changing the way cities are planned, built and managed. “WUF 3 is not about what we should be doing, it’s about ‘how’ we should be doing it,” says Commissioner General Kelly.

The overall theme of the event - Sustainable Cities – Turning Ideas into Action - is supported by three sub-themes focusing on: Urban Growth and the Environment – shaping cities through urban planning and management; Partnership and Finance – using municipal finance to promote innovation and collaboration; and: Social Inclusion and Cohesion – with a particular focus on slum upgrading and affordable housing.

Placing emphasis on practical solutions that have street level impact is the key to successful change. As Chicago’s Mayor Daley notes, improving the quality of life by building new streets, sidewalks, alleys and lighting, as well as new parks, libraries, senior centers and police and fire stations was the key to Chicago being rated as the most environmentally friendly city in the United States.

Speaking at the Closing Plenary of GLOBE 2006 Daley stated “Environmentalism makes sense economically and politically. Taking pride in your city, taking pride in your home. That is the key to success.”

The World Urban Forum is the biannual conference for UN-HABITAT, the United Nations body on human settlements. This year, WUF3 marks a homecoming for HABITAT, as the first conference was held in Vancouver in 1976. For more information and complete details and agenda for the World Urban Forum III please, Click Here.

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