Sustainable Cities: Rediscovering the Concept

It’s been sometime since I came back from the trip to Chennai, so I had plenty of time to reflect on the experience obtained during the WBCSD’s meetings and sightseeing in Chennai area. Over the last weeks I was brought back to India many times in my dreams, recollecting the numerous moments and episodes I encountered there. It is very surprising how we are processing information – after some time we are able to re-discover in our mind numerous curious details about the events and processes we were previously observing or involved in, with numerous discrete ideas being formed into a solid opinion overtime. Moreover, after a certain period of time we might be able to recognize something important, which seemed to be out of our sight earlier. Following the trip I often asked myself what was the most significant discovery I had made for myself, what was that important idea I managed to identify.

Being very interested in sustainable cities topic and thus having a goal to learn as much as possible about the issues impacting sustainability of cities and existing ways to tackle them, at the conference I was in constant search for new information and solutions to address the above. What is more, following the WDCSD sessions I had a chance to attend I was contemplating potential implementation of the mentioned solutions in Indian cities like Chennai. Overall, I was very focused on the topic and considered it to be almost a panacea for the 21st century world.

On my way back to Lancaster I was quite satisfied with the knowledge obtained and information gathered on the actions being undertaken. This, being enhanced with positive emotions and amazing experiences accumulated, was making me very energetic and enthusiastic about upcoming final year at the university.

However, the more bright emotions were fading away, the more critical I was becoming about my experience and thoughts. I started to realize there was something missing from my understanding of sustainability and sustainable cities solutions in particular. My perception of the idea started to seem incomplete to me… Looking back at my time in Chennai, additional questions started to come to my mind. Are the sustainable cities solutions relevant and applicable to every city? If they are, are they the top priority matters for those cities?..

Based on the information I recently discovered, “the emissions per head drop as city size grows in the developed world, where a doubling in size typically leads to an increase in emissions of only about 80 per cent” due to the higher efficiency achieved in the developed cities (MIT Technology Review, 2014). In the developing countries “the doubling of city size leads to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions of about 115 per cent” (MIT Technology Review, 2014). It made me think what is the contribution to, for example, CO2 emissions by the rich and poor city? Which one of them allows its citizens to live more sustainable life?

In the developed rich cities there are numerous state-of-the-art sustainable technologies and solutions such as hybrid cars, solar panels and smart buildings. What is more, it is considered that rich cities of the developed world becoming more and more specialized in services provision. Conversely, the poor cities do not possess majority of the progressive technologies and are mainly production–oriented. And still, developed world produces significantly more emissions per capita than the developing world (Rapier, 2012).

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Is it consumerism that triggers this? According to the recent statistics, 12 percent of the world’s population living in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent (Worldwatch Institute, 2013). People who live in affluent countries consume significantly more, which enhances negative impact on sustainability overall and adds to the carbon emissions level in particular. In developing countries, on the contrary, there is a far lower scale of consumption, which partially compensates for the insufficient level of sustainable practices.

Nevertheless, my point here is not to determine who should be responsible for the sustainability issues, the rich or the poor cities, but rather to highlight the limitation of the sustainable cities solution I had a perception of before and emphasize the importance of the complex measures necessary to be undertaken as part of the sustainable cities solution. To improve sustainability, it is essential to tackle low education level in the developing countries allowing them not only to improve their standards of life, but also to make them aware of the sustainability problems and necessity to tackle them. The same applies to the developed world, where it is essential to make people more conscious about their personal actions towards environment and their enormous consumption leading to the increasing ecological footprint. What is more, actions towards high-priority problems such as hunger, poor health, water pollution and inadequate sanitation should also be incorporated into the sustainable cities practices.

My view on the sustainable cities approach changed significantly since I came back from the very inspiring trip to India. Initially considering sustainable cities solution as an isolated topic, my perception of it gradually moved toward seeing this as a very complex, integrated set of actions aiming not just to tackle carbon emissions and minimize the resources input, but also to improve other essential aspects of human life without which it will not be possible to achieve significant change and maintain long-term success in environmental sustainability. What is now left to understand, therefore, is how we can best influence the society, both in rich and poor cities, to be more sustainable…

By Palina Malash

MIT Technology Review, 2014. Are Big, Rich Cities Greener Than Poor Ones? Available at: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/525571/are-big-rich-cities-greener-than-poor-ones/

Rapier, R., 2012. Climate Change and Developing Countries. Available at: http://www.energytrendsinsider.com/2012/08/09/climate-change-and-developing-countries/

Worldwatch Institute, 2013. The State of Consumption Today. Available at: http://www.worldwatch.org/node/810

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