The Quest for Sustainability at 7 Billion
WASHINGTON—Earlier this week, according to the U.N. Population Fund, the world’s population surpassed 7 billion. With the global economy in recession and the impacts of a warming climate increasingly apparent, this new milestone comes at a time of enormous strain and has significant implications for the world’s natural resources, its economy, and of course, its urban areas. More than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and the upward trend is continuing unabated. It has been suggested that by 2050, approximately three-quarters of the world’s population will be urbanized. At this rate, one thing is very clear: cities must be part of the solution to the economic, environmental, and social challenges of our time. But as asked in the recent U.N. State of the World Population report, “what, exactly, is a ‘city’ in 2011?” Traditional city government structures and boundaries generally do not match the web of economic and social activities among urban residents, businesses, and other institutions. Are cities then the right geography for responding to today’s tough challenges? And if not, at what scale can the pressing economic, environmental, and economic challenges of our times best be addressed? Urban experts have long called for a more regional approach that reaches beyond city boundaries to include the residents of entire metropolitan areas. In a recent article for Atlantic Cities, for example, Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution wrote that “metropolitan communities, here and abroad, represent the true economic geography…they are also the undisputed vehicles for environmental sustainability and social inclusion.” But another trend is also emerging in the drive toward sustainable urban development: a greater focus on neighborhood efforts to integrate environmental, economic, and social responses to our current crises. Last week, the Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI) hosted its third annual Ecodistricts Summit, bringing together practitioners around the globe who are pioneering neighborhood-level sustainability projects. Participants highlighted both new development and redevelopment efforts – projects that, in the words of Rob Bennett, PoSI’s Director, are “small enough to go fast and large enough to make a difference.” Among the projects presented were the Seattle 2030 project, which engages downtown property owners and businesses in an effort to minimize the environmental impact of building construction and operation; the Hammarby Sjöstad project in Stockholm, which converted an old industrial area into a modern, mixed-use, low-emissions neighborhood with state-of-the-art environmental infrastructure; and pilot projects spanning the globe from Portland, Oregon, to New Orleans, Louisiana, Sao Paolo, Brazil, and Nagoya, Japan. So what types of innovation can best be supported at the neighborhood level? Clearly, there are technologies and strategies, such as district energy systems, that are highly relevant and effective at this scale, while other policy interventions, including those related to transportation, are more effectively implemented at a larger scale. Perhaps the strongest argument for working at the district level is that all of us live in, do business in, and identify with neighborhoods. The personal relevance of neighborhood interventions can drive community engagement and help build new coalitions. EcoVillage Cleveland, a project launched in the 1990s, for example, built new partnerships among environmental and community development advocates and the public sector around a plan that combined environmental sustainability and affordability goals, all with the aim of supporting neighborhood revitalization. Among the project’s many achievements are the construction of homes that are both permanently affordable and energy efficient, the creation of community gardens, bike trails, and other recreational spaces, the rehabilitation of the local transit station with passive solar heating and other green elements. Indeed, the district scale may be the ideal geography for effectively integrating the multiple approaches — environmental, social, and economic — that truly make a neighborhood sustainable. Metropolitan and neighborhood approaches to sustainable urban development are not in conflict. Nor does either approach diminish the role of the city with its formal authority and urban development tools. But as we reflect on the size of our population and the enormity of the challenges we face, it is important to remember that we will only be able to resolve our current economic, social, and environmental challenges if we engage as many of the world’s 7 billion residents as possible in developing new, more sustainable forms of development and growth. This will require focusing not only on regional visions and strategies, but on making these strategies come to life through neighborhood projects and design decisions shaped by the very people who live with them every day.
Tamar Shapiro is the senior director of urban and social policy at The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.