The Battle for Sustainable Development Must Be Fought in Our Cities

By Elin Andersdotter Fabre and Miriam Matthiessen, October 31 2018

Did you know that today is World Cities Day? In light of the recently published IPCC report, we should capitalise on this day and make sure citizens, development professionals and policy-makers understand the role cities play in shaping our future. ’Cities are where the battle for sustainable development will be won — or lost if we fail’, as Jan Eliasson and Ban Ki-moon used to put it.

Why sustainable cities for all is the most important battle of our generation

The IPCC report particularly points out that there is an urgent need for bold decision-making and a transformation of our consumption patterns. Here, cities are at the heart of the issue. Many are unaware that over half of the world’s inhabitants live in cities and that the urban population will increase to 80% during the next generation. We will have to build as much new city structure as has been built throughout the history of humanity. About 75% of all energy use takes place in our cities and 75% of all emissions come from cities. 1 billion people live in urban slums, in southern Africa over 60% of the population. One in ten lacks access to clean water. 2.4 billion people – one in three – lack access to a toilet. Inequality increases fastest in cities, even in Northern Europe. To summarise, cities embody most challenges related to infrastructure, energy, climate change, water and sanitation but also inequality, that we so urgently need to tackle now in order to prevent a disaster.

Cities are where future generations will prosper or fail

At the same time, urbanisation contributes enormously to economic growth. 75% of the world’s total GDP is generated in cities. Cities is where growth and innovation take place and is therefore the answer to where we will find resources and develop technology to achieve the necessary transformation. It is where the inequality gap can be closed, and future generations can prosper. A recent New York Times article highlights interesting new research from Harvard and Brown scholars. They show that the neighbourhood where a child grows up will shape their prospects of living a prosperous life. Moving just one kilometre in a relatively young age can actually be life-changing. A child from one area will be more likely to be incarcerated and less likely to be employed compared to another child growing up just a few blocks away. Of course, schooling and parenting is also important, but the researchers believe that much of this variation is driven by the neighbourhoods themselves, and what matters the most is the environment within about half a mile of a child’s home.

How do we create better neighbourhoods?

As a consequence, American housing authorities are testing whether they can provide support for families to move where opportunity already exists. But what if we tried to make focus on improving the neighbourhoods instead? In a pilot project in Botkyrka, outside Stockholm, this possibility is currently being explored by a group of girls, municipal officers, architects, researchers, companies and organisations. Inspired from local work in the Global South, they are in the process of developing tools to transform public spaces in neighbourhoods, with the intention to create a toolbox that could be used globally. It builds on a principle highly recommended in slum upgrading, which is to avoid moving people from one spot to another,  and instead capitalise on the neighbourhood’s untapped potential to make people want to stay – even if and when they can afford to move.

But what should a prosperous neighbourhood look like?

Researchers have yet to understand exactly what leads some neighbourhoods to play a nurturing role for children, although they do point to some characteristics. The bottom line is the importance of creating good neighbourhoods where people in disadvantageous situations are given an opportunity to prosper. Many suburbs were built around the car with the needs of a white, middle age, economically prosperous man in mind. What would happen if we build with the needs of young women of colour in mind instead? As the built environment in our current neighbourhoods has in many ways been detrimental to both people and planet, this could be one of the keys to our generation’s greatest battle.

This article was translated from Swedish. The original article can be found here. You can also read more about our work here or follow #UrbanGirlsMovement on social media for updates.

Photo credit: Stijn te Strake on Unsplash