Q&A: Sustainable cities – a modern legend (Part 1)

“Our societies will never be great until our cities are great. There is the decay of the centre and despoiling of the suburbs. There is not enough housing for our people, nor enough transportation for our traffic. Open lands are vanishing and landmarks are being violated… A few years ago we were concerned about the ugly country… Today we must act to prevent an ugly city.”

Lyndon B. Johnson President, USA, 1964.

TH: What is a sustainable city?

JO: It is currently a modern legend. Something attainable but unfortunately not quite realized yet. This aspiration – this plan – is to build a city that is designed and operated to sustain and potentially grow with an integrated environmental, social and financial balance of priorities.

This translates to a healthy environment with open-park spaces, a governance structure that allows for community participation as well as welfare safeguards for disadvantaged groups, an efficient private sector that generates employment and aids in economic growth, and whose goods and services are as locally and environmentally sourced as possible, including energy, transport and food.

The beauty is that the city itself has the capacity to act as an inspirational catalyst and inspire sustainability within its population and even within other cities across the world.

TH: How should the public sector, private sector, NGOs and citizenry engage around this?

JO: Stakeholders would consider these three aspects of sustainability and reflect it in their work in such a way that they complement each other so that they all combine forces and resources. Sustainability is not a stand-alone process but requires concerted and open-source effort.

The ideology is clear and usually general agreement can be reached pretty quickly. However, the key and main obstacle to making a city a sustainable one, is practical implementation.

How do you create the bridges between the stakeholders? How do you identify the leaders within each sector that develop it for the benefit of the many? What are the benefits or glue that will drive individuals, organizations and whole sectors?

There are in-depth answers and solutions to these but they need to be tailored to the unique location, needs, culture and people from each city. My personal belief is that if you can tap into the city’s culture, its people and inspire them using simple and everyday methods then you have a winning formula.

The private sector will naturally follow the demand, the public sector will serve them and as individuals they will take responsibility for themselves and those around them.

TH: Most often where does the driving force for change come from? (A certain champion, the ratepayers, city officials…..)

JO: We’ve found that the catalyst for change often comes from inspired individuals who converge and tap into the latent will within others who also share these same sustainability goals and aspirations, even when they hadn’t found the physical manifestation of it until that moment.

Strong, brave and visionary leadership is necessary to deliver the message in an unflinching and positive way. These leaders can be found across the cities in many roles and guises but they share similar characteristics.

An award-winning piece of research was carried out on this by Golder Associates for the London Sustainable Development Commission that led to the development of the London Leaders programme, to which I was asked to join as one of the first Leaders and led to some of my first involvement in sustainable cities .  You can download the document here.

TH: What cities have made the most progress?

JO: I really enjoy visiting different initiatives across the world in the search for innovation in this field. For instance, the commendable work carried out by Copenhagen in preparation for COP15, which merged destination and tourism planning within long-term benefits for a city, engendered a huge increase in adopting greener practices within the hotels of the city. What was 12% in 2008 is now approximately at 57%.

I have been following the development of country-wide plastic bag bans, as I champion this simple yet efficient move. In Ireland, they levied a charge for bags and in China they banned shops providing them for free. In both cases, use has been reduced by up to 90%.

In synergy with these larger trends, I am excited to find out more results from the C40 network of world cities and their mayors who have submitted their carbon emissions data to the Carbon Disclosure Project. Although the question of whether this information will be cross-referenced with social and community trends remains to be answered but could yield some great insight.

I have also seen my home city, London, making innovative strides, accepting and championing progressive initiatives like the formation of environmental entertainment and social centres that I have designed. London continues to inspire me although I feel it is now time to take this knowledge and forward thinking innovative approach across the world.

TH: What are the key lessons they have learned?

JO: A key lesson learned is the importance of connectedness, the inter-linking of effects and impacts that influences our present cities. Until the city planners, legislators, and governors think of the city as a whole living and breathing entity it will be impossible to create a truly beautiful and sustainable city.

For instance, although the recent arrival of the cycle hire scheme in London is extremely positive and I myself ride it everyday, the city is struggling with its air pollution, particularly in the center of the city, where these bikes are located.

This means that despite all the health benefits from people cycling they are simultaneously breathing in pollution that is beyond the EU levels of safety. Another lesson that has actually come from the psychology of architecture is the realization of the symbiotic nature of the cities inhabitants with their environment.

For instance, the beautification and social design of dilapidated areas reduces crime, increases community participation and health. This can be seen clearly when architects create master plans that provide all the basic services within a short walk from housing, reducing the need for cars and increasing a feeling of local integration and consequently pride for their own community backyard.

The other big lesson that people are starting to get to grips with, is the integration of technology into city planning. Cities are the most complicated designs that humans have ever made.

One of the companies that is addressing this is IBM who have now created model virtual cities that are highly complex and respond to millions of variants – like a realistic sim city – and this kind of technological pace is allowing people to imagine and create city that harvests it’s own rainwater when sensors in the road detect rain, reducing storm surges and eliminating water stress in some cases.

Or to understand the web of effects that occur when you decide to build a road through a community or the placing of amenities like public toilets in nightlife zones.  View this link to IBM’s smarter cities.

TH: Any particular success stories that highlight this?

JO: Success needs to be looked at in the context of different approaches and outcomes. In terms of Leadership, Bogota has definitely displayed the visionary governance that produces citywide results. Bogota’s Mayor, Antanas Mockus, was a catalyst. He promoted a culture of citizenship, environmentalism, social progress, urban productivity and institutional legitimacy.

These core policies were aimed at behavioural change within the inhabitants to create a culture of responsibility for their city. Subsequently training in financial and project management has also been provided within Bogota, enabling community groups to implement projects within their community whilst ensuring the funds are transparently spent, increasing positive impacts and trust in the systems that people rely on.

This year, the European commission awarded Hamburg with the title ‘European Green Capital 2011’. This is in part due to their transport planning with light rail and efficient existing city bike hire scheme, which has 72,000 registered users.

The Hamburg Senate has committed itself to a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020 and 80% by 2050 in line with universally recognised mitigation targets. They have also excelled with HafenCity, the largest urban redevelopment project in Europe, which will provide housing for over 10,000 people and 40,000 jobs.

Moreover, they are expanding their green areas and reducing noise pollution from highways. However, what caught my attention the most was that they actively promote sustainable business practices and have a plan to tackle consumerism, with a series of major events and a tour of 17 other cities in Europe to promote its environmental projects and ideas.

I am also quite fond of Austin, Texas’s Mayor, Will Wynn who has mandated home energy efficiency audits. He’s a refreshing progressive leader of the fastest growing big city within the most polluting state in the United States.

He’s a matter-of-fact guy who can see the evidence and isn’t caving into Texas’s powerful energy interest groups. He’s now maximizing the potential for harnessing the green economy through Austin Energy; the municipal energy company is the ninth largest public power utility in the US making it both a huge economic asset but also a policy asset.

They use the money to pay for solar rebates, improve home energy efficiency and even provide CFLs to the people of Austin. This I would call a virtuous cycle, an initiative that improves the society whilst it grows.

In Part 2 of our Q&A on sustainable cities, we answer the following questions:

  • How should schools and universities get involved?
  • Where are the quick wins (low hanging fruits)?
  • Where is there the most resistance from certain stakeholders?
  • In a developing country context, how does one address relative lack of technology?