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Cities – why understanding their governance is key to sustainability

posted Mar 20, 2012, 1:29 AM by Unknown user

Paul Toyne, Head of Sustainability, WSP Group

It is widely recognised that the rate of urbanisation in the next 40 years is equivalent to development of the last 4000 years.

The sheer pace and scale, combined with challenges such as: an increasing population, rapidly increasing urbanisation, the need to adapt to a changing climate and growing resource constraints, is forcing us to rethink our strategies for the built environment. Ultimately, this means that the cities of the future won’t be designed as in the past. We are going through a huge learning phase to meet these challenges, be it the restoration of existing cities, or designing the expansion of old or entirely new cities. But first, we must explore how cities operate and how this will affect their future development.  

The governance of Cities

Understanding how cities are managed is key to designing and operating them. Cities will have their own objectives based around economic, social and environmental goals (and political ideals), but in general, cities are large densely populated areas where utilities, transport, real estate/property and city services all come together to provide citizens with a safe place to live, work and socialise. Realising how a city works - it’s different structures: legal (laws, bye-laws and permissions), planning (a variety of policy frameworks), financing (taxes, levies and subsidies), the market (how it procures goods and services) - is crucial to re-engineering the future city, regardless of whether it is a city in a developed or developing country.

Herein lies the problem; as there is no overall model of governance for cities and, by their very nature, cities are chaotic constantly changing places. The control and management of services such as water, waste, sewage, power, telecommunications, roads and green spaces will vary. Some will be under the control of the municipality, others under the control of private firms, or a mixture of public/private ownership.

In developing countries, much of the city growth will be of an informal nature and outside established governance structures altogether. Creative options for alternative infrastructure, provision of basic services and community-based governance are likely to be important in many of the cities of the future. 

Once the governance has been unravelled, it is then possible to focus on how best to manage individual issues, and the interlinkages between them. Some of the key issues that need to be assessed for their connection and combination are power generation (heating, cooling and lighting of buildings), transport, food production, water and waste.

Timing and integration is key too

The key to these improvements however is of course timely and integrated investment. Any investment needs to be timed to deliver the best ‘future-proof’ result. For example, when designing energy systems, a flexible approach allows for future adaptation to different fuel sources as the city transitions to a low/zero carbon economy. As we move through the learning curve, we are beginning to develop ‘closed-looped’ thinking, by taking integrated approaches in linking issues, such as waste and water.  With a more enhanced understanding of how these challenges are related, cities can start to develop a more holistic strategy.  The technical solutions are now at hand, the great challenge now is to engage city governments, institutions (including financial) and the public, in order to implement a transition to the development of green cities. 

The importance of cities for Rio+20

Given that more people live in cities than ever before and the challenges of managing consumption habits and natural resources, the development of cities must be central to discussions at Rio+20 in June. The restoration of existing cities and the design of new cities, offers huge opportunities in striving towards energy, waste and water neutrality. The associated jobs would stimulate a green economy, and those employment opportunities, coupled with green buildings and the establishment of affordable public transport networks linking to places of work, entertainment and other services, will help the health and well-being of citizens and the vibrancy of cities.