Unsustainable cities – make a change

Since 10 weeks I am participating at a MOOC called “Age of Sustainability” created by the SDSN in cooperation with Jeffrey D. Sachs, Earth Institute at Columbia University. I like MOOCs if they are well made. This one definitely is. SDSN stands for Sustainable Development Solutions Network and their platform offers great MOOCs. Check it out here. So, last week the topic was “Sustainable Cities”. I think we all have already heard at least something about how to make a city sustainable. Haven’t you? Shortly Sachs named some aspects about how an unsustainable city looks like. So I thought why not going deeper into that topic, because currently it seems to me that there are way more unsustainable cities than sustainable.

But of what exactly characterizes an unsustainable city?

Well, there are a bunch of different aspects, which I will summarize into three self-made categories. Below I will to apply those categories to some concrete characteristics of city, which I would consider as not sustainable.

  • Firstly think about the movements of a city. Those can be traffic, public transportation, a harbour, airports, the water supply, general logistics and wind.
  • Secondly one can think about behaviour in politics, of cityzens, of lobbies, start-ups or companies. Also general consciousness, consumption behaviour, social behaviour can play important roles when it comes to sustainability.
  • Thirdly we have the style of the city, which can be defined by its’ general structure, the amount of green spaces, its’ architecture, urban planning or materials commonly used.

Now, let’s talk about unsustainable movements. Traffic jam, long distances or insufficient public transportation lead a city towards high CO2 emissions. Cities where you are dependent among cars are not en vogue. Cities where one has to use a car to get around cannot lead us towards sustainability, especially not if cars are powered by fossil fuels. We need public alternatives and innovative traffic structures, which have zero emissions.

Let the wind flow! A city without wind aisles will feel the risk of heat waves and air-pollution the hardest. Do not underestimate wind. It brings fresh air and automatically functions as natural air conditioner. However, first lesson: stick to fossil fuel powered cars, bad planned traffic structures and overall a not well-made flow of goods.

And who could actually behave unsustainable? Well, we can think about different stakeholders and aspects. Politicians are often considered as people with power. That is somewhat true in my opinion, but they are also of course persons with self-interests. Therefore we cannot aspect them to save the planet alone. We, as their voters (in democratic states), have to communicate the urgency of taking action in terms of sustainability to them. However, nowadays I cannot see the power of people more the power of lobbies and companies taking over politics. I consider a city or a state as unsustainable if politicians do not act in the interests of their voters towards a future existence of humanity, but instead in the aim of companies to generate more and more money. Of course a cities’ sustainability is also dependent among its’ cityzens’ behaviour. How is your lifestyle? I know, that it is not easy to define, but here is a key questions to answer for you. Do you think that you contribute something towards a sustainable world through your own lifestyle?

Now imagine 10 Million* people living in one city. That is a great factor concerning the sustainability of a city, isn’t it? In my opinion the behaviour of us as inhabitants, voters, workers, consumers et cetera could be a key factor to successfully shift our present state towards a more sustainable way of life. So, second lesson: A city where everybody acts in a egocentric way, buying tons of plastic day in day out or do not care at all about sustainability, would be a very unsustainable place on earth.

Let’s have a look at the style of a city. Are most of the buildings old, dependent among foreign energy supply and not well insulated? If yes, the cities’ architecture might win a prize for unsustainability at its’ best. Has the city any green spaces?
Those are important to build up a healthy microclimate as well to keep urban biodiversity alive. It is hard to tell how many greenish spaces are needed relatively to the amount of buildings, but if a city does not have any larger green space like a park or forest you could consider it as not ecological sustainable. Does the city have any urban planning institution? Take a look at some South American cities like Rio de Janeiro. It is kinda famous for its dangerous favelas. Those are self-made districts, which nobody ever governed or allowed. Slowly some get legalised and more save, but for the whole city it is a huge problem. Nobody knows how many people live there, nor how the infrastructure works or which ground belongs to whom. Those areas are out of control and measurement. City planning is key! More than ever we have to collect data, review it and face challenges with great innovation as solution. Without an innovative framework for the city to develop in a sustainable way, unsustainability could last a much longer as it should. Third lesson learned.

Alrighty, so how could we really transform? I would suggest that firstly – please – get aware about the current state of the earth and our own existence and tell your friends and family about it. We are facing a much higher frequency of shocks. Those could be heat-waves which are not only hot nor hotter but hottest! Put that together with demographic change in a lot of countries: Voilà – you have the perfect basis for a huge risk to health. Other examples for most likely shocks are cyclones, earthquakes, floods or landslides. Also droughts are a tremendous risk combined with the global freshwater-overuse and shortage.

To fight all of this, we need a forward-looking behaviour. The combination of ecology, public policy and engineering could be one solution to solve our crisis.

Starting now, winning tomorrow.

* >10 Million is the number of people which it takes until a city is considered as Mega City

About the author

Jo

Hi there, I am Jo. Currently, I am a blogger and student, based in London, UK. Living in urban settings with a passion for sustainability inspired me to create this blog. Here, I want to capture and share some of my urban explorations, experiences and thoughts. Feel free to click around, give feedback, share the blog or connect with me. Cheers!

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