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Sustainable Cities “Can Improve Lives and Build a Healthier Planet”

It may seem counterintuitive in a world where giant urban concentrations of billions of people are snagged in traffic congestion and endless sprawl, but cities may well be the smartest way to both make our use of the planet sustainable and raise prosperity. That was the conclusion of a panel discussion held at the United...

It may seem counterintuitive in a world where giant urban concentrations of billions of people are snagged in traffic congestion and endless sprawl, but cities may well be the smartest way to both make our use of the planet sustainable and raise prosperity. That was the conclusion of a panel discussion held at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (also known as Rio+20) this week.

“International urban experts called for creating and planning cities that make possible economic empowerment and increased opportunities for participation among the poorest urban residents,” said a news release about the discussion, issued by the New York-based The Ford Foundation (, an independent, nonprofit grant-making organization that seeks to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement.

Photo: Luis Ubinas, president of Ford Foundation
Luis Ubinas

“Urbanization can improve lives and build a healthier planet,” said Luis Ubiñas, president of the Ford Foundation, in opening the panel event entitled, The Sustainable and Just City: Rio+20 and Beyond. “It is also possible to turn a city’s creative and entrepreneurial energy into a force for reducing poverty, increasing economic growth and reaching the twin goals of Rio+20, environmental sustainability and shared prosperity.” (Read the guest blog post for National Geographic News Watch by Luis Ubiñas: Natural and Urban Settings Both Need Our Attention)

According to the Ford Foundation statement, global population growth over the next four decades–an estimated 2.3 billion people–is expected to take place for the most part in urban areas, and this year for the first time, more people live in cities than not. “In convening two related events in Rio … the Ford Foundation helps to boost growing awareness of cities as engines of economic mobility and drivers of sustainable growth,” the Foundation said.

“Those who resist diversity, delay investments in infrastructure and fail to expand simple ownership will actually discourage the sustainability of cities. This will have grave consequences for all of us.”

“The unique qualities of metropolitan centers put many solutions within reach,” said Nilcea Freire, Representative of the Ford Foundation in Brazil. “But those who resist diversity, delay investments in infrastructure and fail to expand simple ownership will actually discourage the sustainability of cities. This will have grave consequences for all of us.”

The discussion was moderated by George McCarthy, director of metropolitan opportunity at the Ford Foundation. On the panel, Ubiñas was joined by Jorge Bittar, municipal secretary of housing for the city of Rio de Janeiro; Xavier de Souza Briggs, associate professor of sociology and urban planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Jeb Brugmann, founder of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability; and Raquel Rolnik, UN special rapporteur on adequate housing.

Among the topics addressed were the challenges faced by the city of Rio as it prepares for the Olympics and the World Cup, the Foundation noted. “Bittar, Rio de Janeiro’s housing secretary, is charged with planning and implementing land use changes that have raised awareness of the lack of land rights among many of the dwellers of the favelas that ring the hills around the city”.

Force for Positive Change

“Our experience suggests that these global events can serve as an opportunity to address many of the underlying problems that a city will have to handle in the long-term,” said ICLEI’s Brugmann. “We have evidence that when all residents of a city are drawn into the discussion of urban planning and given a voice in the proceedings, they can become a force for positive change.”

UN special rapporteur Rolnik, who also is a professor at the University of São Paulo, said that modern Brazil is unique in that it has in place laws and systems that protect and create opportunities for the poorest members of a community to voice concern and influence policy. But as in other countries that have prepared for these and similar events, participatory systems can be set aside. International organizers are looking for evidence of progress in creating the infrastructure they require, and local officials feel pressed for time.

“In this context, democracy disappears,” Rolnik said. “We have in Brazil city councils, housing committees, a national council on cities, but they are not being used. Decisions are being made that travel directly from the organizers of the World Cup, for example, to the local political powers–the mayor or governor, the local organizing committee and service providers.”

Brugmann’s work around the world, and that of Souza Briggs in the United States, suggests that an urban center’s poorest communities are often dynamic and well-functioning economic hubs, the Ford Foundation said. “Ignoring them in urban planning cuts out one of the most creative sources for solving a city’s problems.”

Key Principles

Ubiñas outlined three key principles as critical to ensuring success in taking advantage of cities as a vehicle for just and sustainable development:

  • Density: It boosts creativity, entrepreneurial energy and jobs, while at the same time helping to mitigate climate change by ensuring that residents are close to where they live and work.
  • Diversity: When embraced by a city, it can spur faster and smarter growth.
  • Sound land use planning and formalization: This means ensuring that cities are designed for efficient land use and energy use and able to maximize economic opportunities for all residents. Similarly, they must give residents ownership of land and standing at the municipal and provincial levels, which unleashes creative energy and growth as well as a more profound commitment by urban residents to the sustainability of their communities.

“Granting residency rights brings residents into the economic mainstream, giving them a stake in the sustainable development of their own cities,” Ubiñas said. “It makes them a force for change that is much more powerful than anything that can be designed on their behalf from the outside.”

According to The Ford Foundation, other cities that have embraced this challenge include:

  • New York City–Expecting one million more residents by the year 2030, New York launched its PlaNYC initiative in 2007. Since then, it has created or preserved more than 64,000 units of housing, built new neighborhoods with mass transit access, enacted ambitious energy efficiency laws for existing buildings, and reduced the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 13 percent below 2005 levels.
  • Dhaka–The rapid expansion of Bangladesh’s capital highlighted the need for a sustainable approach to handling municipal solid waste. Since more than three-quarters of the city’s waste is organic, the government chose to recycle it into compost at a centralized plant employing 800 workers. Now, 50,000 metric tonnes of compost is produced, lowering the burden on the city’s landfills and reducing municipal greenhouse gas emissions by 89,000 tonnes of CO2 every year.
  • Bogotá–In looking at reducing automobile traffic, the capital of Colombia expanded both its mass transit system and its bicycling infrastructure. The city’s TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit system now carries almost 2 million passengers per day and almost 300km of bicycle lanes have been built, spurring an almost tenfold expansion of bicycle use.
  • Nairobi–The central gateway to Eastern and Central Africa as well as the regional host for numerous international organizations, Nairobi also circled 2030 as a target date for economic development goals. Already, new topographical maps were created for the metropolitan region, 4,000 trees were planted along the Nairobi River while 109 illegal discharge points were blocked, 20 illegal land dumps on dry land were closed, and plans for a new bus and light rail transit system advanced.
  • Bilbao–This Spanish city was historically a bastion of heavy industry.  But as this sector aged and declined, manufacturing jobs left. Bilbao chose to redevelop in a different direction, and a 30-year plan set in 1991 has invested more than €650 million to clean and regenerate brownfields and industrial land in four key areas. The effort included a branch of the Guggenheim Museum that established the city as a new cultural hub for Europe.

This post from the Rio+20 conference was based on news materials sent to National Geographic by The Ford Foundation. For more about how cities are coming to grips with the challenges of sutainability, please visit our special blog City Solutions. For more information about the work of The Ford Foundation, visit their website.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn