Bustling streets, tons of creative energy and the promise of new opportunities. Large cities have always drawn people like magnets. The world’s modern metropolises still lure with the promise of excitement and possibility. Yet, mega cities also represent one of the biggest challenges for sustainable urban development.
According to projections by the United Nations, 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. While cities only take up 2% of the world’s surface, they consume 78% of the world’s energy. What’s more, they produce 60% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why any serious attempts to reverse climate change will need to include a framework for sustainable urban development.
Gregor Mews is an urban planner and the founder of the Urban Synergies Group. After having studied urban planning and design in Berlin, he travelled the world to learn more about human life at different stages of urban development.
Now based in Australia, Gregor is working with local governments, NGOs, businesses and UN Habitat to create healthier, more connected and sustainable urban communities. In short, if you want to have a philosophical discussion about what the future of the city should look like, Gregor is your man!
“We’re at a historical moment in time”, says Gregor about the urgency of the problem. “We have three years to turn the trend in global warming around until we enter the adaptation phase.“ However, to tackle this problem, it would require more than just installing solar panels on rooftops.
It’s in this context that Gregor identifies 3 fundamental shifts required in our thinking that will ultimately lead to sustainable urban development.
1. Putting human needs at the heart of sustainable urban development
Most people will have heard about the Mercer Global Liveability Index that ranks cities based on the quality of life they offer to their citizens.
“The issue with this ranking system is that it’s basically designed for rich minorities. It caters toward highly educated people with a high socio-economic status. However, these rankings tell us very little about what ordinary life looks like for the majority”, says Gregor. “For example, Sydney has often been ranked as one of the most liveable cities in the world. But I doubt that most people in Western Sydney would agree with this assessment.”
That’s why Gregor advocates for a more inclusive framework to measure the success of a city . He call it urban lovability.
“Urban lovability is about developing a shared vision for our cities. It is about ensuring that all of its inhabitants can live a healthy and meaningful life. Not only that, they can also experience a sense of connection through their interaction with others”, says Gregor.
When applied in practice, urban lovability takes a more human-centred approach to urban planning. The concept includes easy access to public infrastructure such as libraries, parks and public transport. This is important because it createsmore space for friendly day-to-day interactions between people from different walks of life.
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
― Jane Jacobs
“I know it can sound a little bit elusive, but I do believe that urban lovability is something anybody can relate to”, explains Gregor. “If we can find a way to build and reinvent our cities in a way that creates a greater sense of connection on an individual level, we are also setting ourselves up for a more sustainable future.”
“If people feel connected to their community and their lives are filled with purpose and meaning, it’s also much more likely that will feel responsible for the environment,.”
2. Reinvigorating the discourse culture
Whether you turn on the TV or follow almost any topic on social media, you will be hard pressed to find a constructive discussion that could lead to consensus or change.
No matter whether it’s Murray-Darling disaster, Same-Sex marriage rights or much more trivial matters, there’s mostly shouting and finger pointing. “The issue with this is that we won’t be able to make any progress. We need to learn to listen to what the opposite side has to say”, says Gregor.
“In order to design a future of positive change, we first must become expert at changing our mind.” – Jacques Fresco
“The irony is that Australia was once a global role model of people working together toward a shared outcome”, explains Gregor.
In the 70s in Sydney, the now iconic heritage buildings in The Rocks were earmarked for demolishment to make room for office towers.
“Workers Unions and intellectuals came together to successfully fight against these development plans”, says Gregor. They were part of the Green Ban movement that ended up protecting many spaces of cultural and environmental significance. The movement also became the inspiration for the formation of the Greens party in Germany.
“Given the urgency of our environmental crisis we need to find a way to return to a more robust public discourse. We need to learn to be open-minded enough to consider solutions outside the political and economic mainstream ”, states Gregor. “Because only if people are being heard, can we also expect them to get more involved in a constructive way.”
3. Prioritising collaboration over growth and competition
Within the current political and economic model, growth is usually hailed as the go-to solution for any number of societal problems. It’s also seen as the driver for all human progress.
“There are at least two fundamental issues with this view”, says Gregor. “For one, it fosters an environment of constant competition rather than collaboration – be it between different cities, nations, companies or individuals. And secondly, it neither considers the limits of our natural resources nor human energy.”
According to Gregor, this fervent pursuit of growth leads to a culture of ruthless optimisation for economic gains (because we reward only what pays more dividends). On the flipside, it leads to a de-prioritisation of community and personal needs.
“The cause of our current ecological crisis is our inability to set and follow adequate limits for the economical use of our world.” – Hans Christoph Binswanger
And this outlook also has a direct impact on the sustainability of our cities.
“Right now, there’s this perception that we need these huge cities to compete against each other”, says Gregor. ”But this puts immense pressure on our urban infrastructure and the people who live in these cities.”
“On the other hand, smaller regional centres are much better equipped to deal with the challenges of climate change. These smaller urban hubs don’t have as much infrastructure in place yet and can build for the future instead”, explains Gregor.
“Imagine then if big corporates collaborated directly with local councils to enable more people to work remotely. It would not only lead to more sustainable urban development, but also much healthier lifestyles.”
Interested in Gregor’s work?
If you’re keen to learn more about Gregor’s work, take a look at the reports on the Urban Synergies website or watch his TEDx Canberra talk below.