Bustling streets, tons of creative energy and the promise of new opportunities – large cities have always drawn people like magnets. And while the world’s modern metropolises still lure with the promise of excitement and infinite possibility, they also represent one of the biggest challenges for sustainable 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 and produce 60% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. It’s inevitable then that any serious attempt to reverse climate change need to include a framework for sustainable cities.
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 the human condition at different stages of urban development.
Now based in Australia’s capital, Canberra, Gregor is working with local governments, non-government organisations, businesses and UN Habitat to create healthier, more connected and sustainable 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 urban planning
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 – highly educated people with a high socio-economic status who want to travel to and live in those places. But 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 – one that’s best summarised as urban lovability.
“Urban lovability is about developing a shared vision for our cities, so we ensure that all of its inhabitants can live a healthy and meaningful life and 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 which includes easy access to public infrastructure such as libraries, parks and public transport, making more 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 a concept that 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.”
“After all, it’s much more likely that people are going to feel a sense of responsibility for the environment and the future of generations to follow, if they feel connected to their immediate community and their lives are filled with purpose and meaning.”
2. Reinvigorating the discourse culture
Whether you turn on the TV to watch a current affairs program or follow a political debate on social media, you will be hard pressed to find a constructive discussion geared towards reaching actual consensus and 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, if we never 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 despite political and socio-economic differences”, explains Gregor.
In the 70s in Sydney, the now iconic heritage buildings in The Rocks where earmarked for demolishment to make room for office towers.
“Workers Unions and intellectuals came together to successfully fight against this development”, says Gregor. They were part of the Green Ban movement that ended up protecting many spaces of cultural and environmental significance in Australia. It 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 and be open-minded enough to consider solutions outside the current dominant political and economic paradigm”, 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) and 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 since they don’t have that 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 cities, 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.