Waste

Interrogating sustainable cities

The concept of sustainable cities can be a confused one when it attempts to cater to all interests

 
By Harini Nagendra
Last Updated: Wednesday 19 October 2016

Sustainable cities must incorporate environmental and social aspects, examine sustainability within the city, seek to minimise external impact and evaluate short-term and long-term outcomes
Credit: Dimitry B/Flickr

With rapid urbanisation, “sustainable cities” are much in news. Globally, and in India, planning and policy emphasise sustainable city development, devising interventions, indicators and metrics to track progress. Yet what do we mean by a sustainable city? It varies greatly.

Some definitions are purely based on environmental characteristics such as air pollution. Others argue that sustainable cities ought to prioritise equity, justice, and wellbeing. Many studies focus on sustainability within a city’s boundaries.

By this definition, a city is sustainable if it has public transport, green cover, clean water bodies, and has dealt with air pollution and garbage. But such “sustainable” cities import their food, water and energy from distant regions, and export their wastes to create environmental and social challenges outside, prompting the argument that sustainable cities need to look outwards to limit their external impacts.

Differences in time horizons further influence our definitions. Do we think of sustainable cities over time horizons of decades or spanning multiple human generations?

It may seem that the broadest possible definitions are the best. Sustainable cities must, therefore, incorporate environmental and social aspects, examine sustainability within the city, seek to minimise external impact and evaluate short-term and long-term outcomes. Yet, this brings a number of challenges.

For instance, urban restoration projects are relatively straightforward to address if one only considers the environment. But cleaning up and protecting lakes and parks often requires removing encroachments. Given existing vested interests, slums are the first to be razed and relocated while wealthy industrial and real estate developments are carefully ignored or regularised, creating glaring social injustices.

Planning sustainable transport via metro and bus services is possible, but will cities agree to minimise their external environmental and social footprint by banning exporting of their wastes?

Indian cities, which have tried this, have been met with a chorus of protest from within. Balancing the needs of the present and the future is also a challenge. How can cities redesign themselves to meet the as yet unknown transportation needs of future generations of urban residents, for instance?

The concept of sustainable cities can be a confused one when it attempts to cater to all interests. The UN Sustainable Development Goal 11 on sustainable cities covers a range of social and environmental issues from slum upgradation and public transport to air quality and waste management.

The scope ranges from single cities to safeguarding “the world’s cultural and natural heritage”, and looks at inclusivity and justice for the elderly and for children. But this broad canvas of issues listed without prioritisation aims at making conciliatory noises aimed at satisfying all stakeholders in form, without real progress in content.

In India, we have even lesser consensus on what the concept of sustainability means for our cities. These problems of definition are not scientific problems which demand expert definition. They represent societal challenges, requiring sustained conversation and contestation about norms and values. For this, we need public debate across a variety of platforms and audiences.

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