The urban solution


At the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development last month in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20), the failure of states as our key environmental policy actors was again on display. With the health of the biosphere hanging in the balance, national governments’ failure to make significant progress in addressing our environmental challenges is troubling, to say the least. This failure, however, provides an opportunity to ask a tough question: If not nation states, which actors are capable of generating a path to a sustainable future?

The answer, I believe, is cities.

Cities are rarely factored into international negotiations about environmental sustainability or global environmental governance. At global forums, they are reduced to the “local level,” relegated to the bottom of the institutional hierarchy that runs through the nation state. This is puzzling. Yes, cities are the source of most environmental damage – and some of the most intractable conditions that feed that damage – but they also have unique properties and capacities that will enable them to reduce it.

Unlike nation states, city mayors from diverse countries are able to have productive discussions about environmental sustainability without being bogged down by national interests. While national governments have talked and argued, city mayors have moved to act. In part, that’s because it is in cities that many of the global environmental challenges become tangible and urgent. But there’s more to it than that.

While national environmental policies tend to be broad – and thus not very helpful – cities are able to develop a variety of more specific and targeted policies to address environmental degradation. These policies are made even more effective as cities increasingly work together, engaging in cross-border collaboration to determine best practices. Mayors at the Rio+20 Conference, for example, had no trouble comparing notes and brainstorming next steps.

This inter-city approach to addressing environmental sustainability bypasses much of the often fruitless debate found in international forums, and shows more promise for achieving concrete results in the short term.

While advances in science and technology are providing us with an increasing number of sustainable solutions, cities are much better able to implement these practices than nation states, whose spheres of action are in many ways more removed from daily life.

Cities can be part of the solution by addressing problems that exist on a local level. Copenhagen, for example, uses a kind of fuel produced from the city’s organic garbage to power its buses and trucks. An American company, Waste Management, is doing the same with its garbage-collecting trucks. While these are just two examples, imagine the amount of traditional fossil fuel that would be saved if fleets of trucks in other cities around the world dealt with their garbage in this way.

What this shows is that cities can take what is currently a negative (such as the burden and cost of managing organic waste) and use it to make a positive (such as fuel for city trucks). Solutions produced at the local level can then be applied on a global scale, contributing to the international effort to become more environmentally sustainable.

Cities will need to make significant changes to their social, legal, and economic policies in order to fully implement these sorts of scientific and technological approaches to environmental sustainability. But while doing this will not be easy, scientific discoveries, new approaches to planning, and increasingly willing urban leaderships make it feasible.

What we need now is a third approach to environmental policymaking – one that is not exclusively the purview of nation states or cities, but that promotes the development of new urban capacities and cross-urban collaboration and seeks to implement these best practices in cities around the world.

© Japan Today

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I see, so the average Joe and his family are expected to live in a tiny cramped apartment and they'll be restricted to using the bus and train only while the wealthy elite will get to live in huge mansions in the countryside with several cars, a few horses and acres of space to play.

I prefer space, fresh air, quiet and nature.

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You seem to have repeated this comment many times here on JT. However,I don't see anywhere in the article where the author is suggesting the forced movement of people into cities. The suggestion seems to be that there is more cities can do to solve environmental problems. Stay in the countryside, if you like. No one is stopping you.

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The burning of garbage for fuel is similar to making fuel from corn. It may sound good, but in reality it's not very efficient. When you factor in all the energy that's required to collect and process the waste, the energy saved pretty much goes to zero. As far as corn/fuel goes, it's heavily subsidized, and the companies that collect government money are really the only people who come out ahead. I suspect it's the same with the garbage to fuel, as most of the research, development, etc, is done at universities, which are funded by governments, which are funded by taxpayers. The actual efficiency compared to traditional methods is hard to calculate.

Cities will need to make significant changes to their social, legal, and economic policies in order to fully implement these sorts of scientific and technological approaches to environmental sustainability.

I smell somebody who wants to be part of an elite group who gets to tell everybody else how and where to live and how to spend their time.

No thanks.

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Easy to conservein the counryside, recycle tins and glass, feed vegetable peelings to the livestock, burning potato peelings with salt cleans the chimney and the rest to the compost heap. No street lighting, saves on energy and you can clearly see the stars at night. Fuel is wood burning and electricity by wind and solar panels. Self sufficeint and kind to the environment. Planting fruit and nut bearing trees we share the bounty with the birds and squirels, hedgerow for nesting, weeds like nettles and thistles for birds and butterflys. Could I do all this in a city? No I think not.

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The truck example is possibly not a good one due to the small vehicle numbers involved.

More worthy of mention would be the excellent Combined Heat and Power (CHP) schemes in Copenhagen, whereby entire districts are heated from one source- such as a rubbish incineration plant or biomass boiler. This means huge savings in cost and energy as opposed to the standard model of independent heat sources in individual homes (air-con units in Japan). Not to mention the brilliant public transport and suburban rail network.

Urban/rural living is purely a matter of choice, but many people who opt for rural just end up driving 20 miles to the supermarket to stock up on tinned goods. Having a vegetable garden produce a continual supply of fresh veg throughout the year is an art that was mainly lost a couple of generations ago.

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