Why is there such a focus on cities when it comes to living more sustainably? See this contribution to the debate here for instance.

Why are cities so important? What might be their role(s)? What actions are they taking?

Cities are built environments with large numbers of people living and working in them. In England or the USA population centres may be granted certain status & powers by Royal or State Charter and thus become cities. City status and power may become established for historic reasons too. Cities are not limited to the physical boundaries reached by their built environment however since they are interconnected with other places via flows of people, materials, energy, services, information, ideas…This reminds us that boundaries are what people impose upon any complex perceived reality in order to form a more understandable system(s) and to perform some task(s). 

Cities are complex combinations of interacting ecological, social, economic and other systems, often growing (sometimes very rapidly). They are centres of: people; production; pollution; & power. The image (below, left) of Los Angeles shows both the built up and polluted aspects of cities.

Large populations accumulate in cities by the process of urbanisation. Since 2008 over half the world’s population live in cities (in more economically developed countries 75% of people live in cities). By 2050 70% of global population may live in cities. So, cities get such attention in the sustainability debate because that’s where most people are.

Just 600 urban centres generate 60% of global economic growth as measured by GDP. Cities physically cover 3% of global land area but use up 75% of global energy. As centres of production, as measured by money flow, cities are very important (more here).

Cities are responsible for 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the megacities making a particularly large contribution (see image below, left; more information here). They are thus a major cause of climate change - and arguably are well placed to tackle the problem, given appropriate powers and money. Cities have major air, water and land pollution problems and have an eco-footprint several times their land area (three times in Bristol’s case; details here).

Cities are seats of power & influence and may have money, for example the C40 CitiesClimate Leadership Group is a network of the world’s megacities which says it is committed to addressing climate change. Cities can lead by example, for instance Bristol as European Green Capital 2015 (and before Bristol: Copenhagen; Nantes; Vitoria-Gasteiz; Hamburg; & Stockholm) has to demonstrate: a consistent record of achieving high environmental standards; commitment to ongoing and ambitious goals for further environmental improvement and sustainable development; that it can act as a role model to inspire other cities and promote best practices (more here).

 

Cities such as Bristol (City Hall pictured below, left) may be able to finance sustainability moves &/or coordinate the generation of finances (& other resources). They can offer leadership, giving direction, coordinating & engaging stakeholders from all levels, setting a good example. They have knowledge, skills, personnel…& can design, plan & maintain. They can inform, educate & involve, encouraging combined behavioural & technical change.

Engagement is vital for organisational effectiveness & the creation of sustainable cities because it is an essential part of on-going and broad-based social learning which addresses wider forces and institutions, complementing community activities with political and economic insights and action on macro, meso and micro levels - a paradigm for engaging in institutional and social dilemmas such as sustainable development vs. market forces. Engagement is also crucial because it: helps to ensure that individuals, communities & organisations get their dues; helps to empower local communities; involves mutual give & take; helps in getting governance right & is thus crucial to effective, shared leadership, power & responsibility; helps to enhance general wellbeing; boosts ownership of changes needed to move towards sustainability.