2 November 2016
Stefan Stern talks about a recent webinar discussing the idea of the sustainable city.

“Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.”

TS Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922

The modern city is an experiment in living. And it is winning the battle for hearts, minds and wallets. The city is where it’s at. We’re all going there. Do you want to miss out? Join us.

But there are obvious consequences to this great global movement of urbanisation. Where will we all live? Will there be enough jobs? Who will care for the growing numbers of elderly people? And what about the massive environmental impact of population growth and density? We have to keep the lights on and the machines turning, we have to keep the (clean?) water and traffic flowing. And all this has to happen sustainably.

These were some of the thoughts that lay behind our recent webinar on the sustainable city, which I had the privilege of chairing this summer. Organised by the Pentland Centre at the University of Lancaster, our panel consisted of some expert international speakers and practitioners who are wrestling with all the above questions: Prof Dr. Thomas Elmqvist of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Janet Turner QC, director of Minerva Smart Cities, Gary Sharkey, programme director of the Global Cities Business Alliance, and Andrew Waddelove from Arcadis and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

The discussion – please listen, it’s worth it – was striking for its optimism. Of course the panelists are in business to solve problems and makes things better. It would be slightly worrying if they were in despair. But no end of sceptical (ok, negative) prodding from the chair could dampen the enthusiasm. We face big challenges but good people are working on them.

Human ingenuity will find answers, if governments and city authorities have the courage, imagination and resources to tackle them. But some glaring issues remain, which were not dodged by the panelists.

Is housing becoming increasingly unaffordable in our major cities, and if so what will this mean for the idea of community? Janet Turner argued particularly well on the need for “live/work” spaces which can cut down commuting times and also inject new vibrancy into neglected areas. She also drew an important distinction between regeneration (good) and redevelopment (not necessarily always so good). We have to be clear which is which.

Waste management is the opposite of glamorous. Where there are millions of people there is a lot of…well, waste. And cities have to manage it. But “where there’s muck there’s brass”, as they say, and even in waste there could be business opportunities in terms of recycling, for example (the “circular economy”). This too was raised in our discussion.

Energy conservation and the efficient use of water are two other stand-out themes. There are no short-cuts to solving either. The discussion explored these areas as well.

Cities can seem a bit unreal, as TS Eliot said. The architecture is daunting, and inspiring. The sheer mass of humanity can delight but also overwhelm. And there is strength and creativity in diversity.

But cities are also massively real, making a real and unignorable impact on the planet. Time is not on our side as hundreds of millions of people worldwide continue to move to cities. We need answers, and action. Perhaps your thinking will be inspired just a little by investing some time listening to our expert contributors.

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