Sustainable cities start with communities

Why sustainable urban development requires major philosophical shifts

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!

Gregor Mews talks about the role of cities for a more sustainable future. Image: Urban Synergies Group.

 “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.”

Thinkers