Prioritizing Urban Sustainability Over Urban Opportunity

By Mebeelo Kafungwa

It is increasingly challenging to address the diversity of issues of urbanization, such as inclusive economic opportunity, technological innovations, sustainability while still offering a livelihood for the world population. It has enlightened both the global and local communities on the long-term consequences that our current way of designing cities has on the environment. Some current environmental and inequality related impacts include water scarcity, air pollution, traffic congestion, cyclones, hurricanes, floods, rampant increase of urban slums, power outages, and disease outbreaks. City innovation has provided great improvements over time. Unfortunately, diverse, and complex problems persist, which prompted stakeholders to respond by adopting a standalone SDG goal aiming to overcome urban sustainability challenges by the year 2030. The drafters of SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities have recognized that most of these problems can be embraced with the idea of urban opportunities. Yet, the notice that urban income is constant and are aware of the high inequality levels within cities.

Urban poverty in spatial designs of cities refer not only to economic urban opportunity; the urban poor also lack access to environmental services such as sanitation, housing, education, energy and health care. This reflects on the lack of capacity to seize urban opportunities that are emerging from city productivity and economic growth. Therefore, through the United Nations, global leaders have developed a concept of “sustainable city”, “smarty city” and the many other names all under the umbrella of achieving sustainable urban development. The idea of urban sustainability is based on answering current city problems with a focus on land use management and natural resources conservation.

Geneletti et al, (2017) defined sustainability planning as a physical and spatial concept aiming to optimize the distribution and allocation of land and human activities within a certain administrative boundary, providing indications and regulations for land use activities. However, integrating knowledge on socioecological aspects to drive society to act and implement principles of urban sustainability must be a priority. Wheeler, (2013) argues that integrating sustainability in real world planning processes remains like the challenges experienced during the inception of industrialization.

Fitjar and Rogriguez-Pose, (2011), reported economic opportunities and innovation rise from cities. As the city economy grows and poverty is reduced, the urban environment tends to deteriorate, because urban infrastructure comes with the cost of maintenance. They also noted that local governments often lack management capacity to efficiently manage or build resilience to urban risks and protect the environment. Rapid urbanization and economic growth have resulted in widespread environmental degradation in urban areas. Some argue that these imbalances are unavoidable because urbanization leads to demographic, socio-cultural, environment and political changes that eventually affect the realization of the concept of urban sustainability. Navigating this bridge of urban opportunity and urban sustainability calls for innovative policies that integrate social economic, food security and hygiene, safety & health, quality education for global masses, construction designs and environmental issues.

Other scholars (DiGaetano & Strom, (2003) and Rumford, (2002) hypothesize that cities have acquired a diverse set of dimensions (spatial, social or economic) that go beyond the simplest indicator, i.e. the distance from a city core. This prompts for action to update policy and re-frame consolidated theories and new models for urban planning and governance. Satterthwaite, (2007), argues that cities have been pivotal centers for economic growth, employment creation, innovation and cultural exchange. Cities in many developing countries (e.g., Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Zambia, Mexico, Honduras, India, Nigeria, Peru and South Africa) concentrate the core of modern productive activi­ties and are the areas where income-earning opportunities are to be found. Cohen, (2006), highlights that cities are also the centers where women enjoy the highest labor participation, health access, literacy rates and upward social mobility. Grubler and Fisk, (2013), found that on average urban gross domestic product (GDP) represents about 80 per cent of world GDP. Therefore, it is important to make it clear to society, business community and politicians that urban sustainability is not a killer of city economic opportunity. It is not an idea that scouts for pollution problems and then fines businesses but it is an innovative approach our generation has to embrace because it is opening up many urban opportunities.

Yap’s, (2013), insight on this debate was clear “Urbanization is not just a matter of percentages of people living in urban areas or of settlements declared ‘urban’. The high concentration of people, economic activities and services in a relatively small area has a profound impact on urban society and economy. Urban economies of scale and agglomeration lead to better access to services, greater prosperity and changes in lifestyle, but rapid urbanization also leads to increased slums and squatter settlements, social alienation and environmental pollution. The positive and negative impact of urbanization is not distributed equally among the urban population; the rich and powerful draw more benefits from the positive effects and are better protected against adverse effects than the poor and marginalized.”

This aligns with the findings of Seto et al, (2011) in his study, where he mentioned that “The rate and magnitude of urban growth are influenced by many macro factors, including income, economic development, and population growth, as well as a number of local and regional factors such as land use policies, the informal economy, capital flows, and transportation costs.”

The suggested approach in how to link urban opportunities and sustainability achievement is through answering complex many questions such as:

  1. Is there a link between the economic power of cities and their ability to accelerate social change?
  2. How to reduce the persistent growth of slums in mega city?

It also depends on the systematic collection and analysis of data and their presentation in a way that recognizes urban, peri-urban and intra-urban dynamics and new forms of urban development. The four pillars of sustainable cities are illustrated in Figure 1. The integration of the four pillars can generate synergies between urban sustainability and urban opportunity. However, investment plays a very critical role, it is the catalyst behind the realization of each of the component goals of urban sustainability.

According to UN DESA, (2013), “To build upon the four pillars can be a challenge for many cities and countries. Cities are often at different stages of development and have their own specific responses to policy priorities at the local and national levels. In this sense, the sets of sustainability challenges to be overcome by cities are diverse. The urban poor will be most affected, as they live in the most vulnerable locations (low-lying flood-prone areas, marshlands, steep slopes) and lack the resources to protect themselves.’’ Another important aspect to take seriously as we foster effective change are the difficult means to quantify impacts of land use change and climate change, specifically on eco-refugees, who are seeking a bright future in nearby cities due to disaster risks and vulnerabilities such as droughts, landslides, earthquakes, floods or soil erosion.

In conclusion, urban development is critical and important. Decision making on urban opportunity and sustainable economic development must take urban sustainability into account. Thus, urban decision-making needs to have clarity on its norms, values and stance.