Sustainable Cities and the Sustainable Development Goals

by Elyssa Ludher, Senior Assistant Director, Centre of Liveable Cities

“Managing urban areas has become one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century. Our success or failure in building sustainable cities will be a major factor in the success of the post-2015 UN development agenda.” ~ John Wilmoth, Director of the UN’s population division.

In 2010, for the first time in recorded history, urban dwellers outnumbered rural dwellers. By 2030, the United Nations estimates that 60% of the world’s population will live in cities.

It is thus propitious that Sustainable Cities are an important focus of the post-2015 agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. A sustainable world cannot be achieved without changing the trajectory of our cities to a more sustainable path. Across the globe, cities are leading the way in sustainability. New York, Copenhagen, Suzhou and Surabaya are just some examples of cities that have adopted more ambitious sustainability goals compared to their national governments. At city level, local governments can focus, channel resources, execute, scale up and achieve results.

Global urban growth will not be proportional; it is expected to double in emerging economies, mainly in existing and new cities in Africa, Latin America and Asia. These rapidly expanding cities face acute pressures on infrastructure and services. Few are equipped with the necessary mandate, resources and capabilities to plan, implement and manage its own development. An SDG focused on cities could thus influence national governments to devolve much needed authority and resources to the local level so they are adequately equipped to address these challenges.

The cities of tomorrow also need to consider a model that will maximise efficiency in terms of delivering infrastructure and services, such as public transport, schools, hospitals, sewage and recreational facilities. Planning a city based on a high density model could achieve the scale required to achieve a high quality of life and sustainable environment for its residents. There are few cities that have managed to achieve high density and high liveability. Singapore is one such city, according to numerous liveability surveys.

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Figure 1: the Density- Liveability matrix

Singapore started out as a fledgling city in the 1960s, plagued by challenges commonly experienced in the emerging cities of today, such as high unemployment, slums, road congestion, lack of sanitation and pollution. Singapore has, however managed to transform into a modern and turbhriving global city in just 50 years.

Other high density cities too have successfully transformed themselves to achieve high liveability coupled with high density. New York, Surabaya, Medellín and Hong Kong, for example, while distinct in history, political structure, geography, character and urban challenges, have commonalities in their urban transformation experiences. The Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) Singapore has captured and distilled some of these commonalities, published in Liveable and Sustainable Cities: A Framework. A simple illustration of the CLC Liveability Framework is shown in Figure 2.

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Figure 2: The Centre for Liveable Cities Liveability Framework

The Framework can be summarised in three simple messages:

  1. Have clear vision and goals: Cities must have vision and goals to guide development aspirations. In Singapore, this was to achieve high quality of life for all residents, a competitive economy so that all are able to live a life of dignity, and a sustainable environment for future generations.
  2. Plan Comprehensively: Cities must plan comprehensively to achieve these goals; this requires foresight, pragmatism, and innovation. Agencies must work together not only to plan, but to implement. Plans must also have enough flexibility to adapt to changes which arise in time.
  3. Inculcate Sound Urban Governance: Cities must have governance structures that embody integrity to carry out these plans. Governance implies more than government; it requires the participation of the private and civil sectors as well, working together to advance collectively. Community engagement is vital for ensuring

If cities are able to integrate the three messages above, their path to sustainability will be infinitely smoother. Once sustainability, inclusiveness and fairness are entrenched in cities, this will naturally lead to the transformation of entire nations and regions, bringing us one large step closer to a sustainable world.

Learn more:

Elyssa Ludher is a Senior Assistant Director at the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), involved in research in urban governance, integrated planning, mobility and food security. She also manages the collaboration with UN Habitat on Capability Development. Prior to working at CLC, Ms Ludher worked in the rural development sector at the Cambodian Organisation for Research, Development and Education (CORDE).

Ms Ludher started her career in urban planning in Brisbane, Australia, first working with Brisbane City Council, and thereafter on major infrastructure projects in Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) Consulting. She was recently published in Liveable and Sustainable Cities: a Framework, and has also published articles on urban governance and community inclusion. Outside of her professional commitments, Ms Ludher volunteers in youth mentoring, in particular through the Junior Youth Empowerment Programme.

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Set up in 2008 by the Ministry of National Development and the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) has as its mission “to distil, create and share knowledge on liveable and sustainable cities”. CLC’s work spans three main areas – Research, Capability Development and Promotion. Through these activities, CLC hopes to provide urban leaders and practitioners with the knowledge and support needed to make our cities better.

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