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‘Our future lies in sustainable cities’

To mark the launch of our Future of Cities series, Dr Sean Fox argues why cities like Bristol have limited powers and cash, but need to lead the way in finding a sustainable future.

Future of Cities

In 2008, a major milestone in human history was passed: for the first time ever more people around the world lived in towns and cities than rural areas. By 2050, the United Nations predicts nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas, and this is expected to continue rising in the second half of this century.

This global urban transition means that cities are critical arenas for action if we are to achieve the globally agreed goals on climate change, biodiversity, and human health and wellbeing enshrined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. There is growing consensus around the world that cities must be part of the solution to our global challenges through local action.

That is why the Bristol Cable is launching their Future of Cities series, looking at solutions to major problems faced by cities, from housing and transport, to energy and food poverty. The year-long project will ask how we make cities fit for the future by looking at solutions in Bristol and other cities around the world.

It is common to see cities as a major cause of these challenges, with their cars, concrete and hazy skies. Cities are responsible for over 80% of energy consumption and three quarters of carbon emissions globally. They tend to be more grey than green.

But cities exist to conserve energy and time and material resources. When companies cluster together in one place, it takes less energy, time, and money to trade with one another. When people live close together, we can use less cable, piping, and asphalt to provide services and amenities. 

If everyone in England lived in a single detached property, our environmental footprint would be many times larger than it is today. We’d have less space for nature and would use much more energy and materials. Density is economically and environmentally efficient. Cities allow us to do more with less.

So how can we make our cities more sustainable and liveable?

Transforming our energy, food, waste, and transport systems, and upgrading our buildings, are essential. We already have the knowledge and technologies we need to dramatically reduce our collective environmental footprint. Some of this change will be hard, but there are also some obvious quick wins.

For example, improving insulation in homes can significantly reduce family energy consumption as well as emissions and bills at the same time. It’s a win-win-win and we know how to do it. Similarly, increasing cycling and walking can reduce emissions and improve health, and we know that building better infrastructure (such as segregated lanes for cycling) can enhance uptake. 

Other challenges are trickier. As a recent report on Bristol’s progress on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlights, our direct emissions as a city have been falling. This is primarily due to changes in the composition of fuel in the national grid — something that is out of our control as a city. It also doesn’t account for the emissions generated by the things we import from elsewhere, like consumer goods. 

Transport systems are also hard to transform. Bristol suffered from the post-war enthusiasm for cars and road building. People came to depend on their cars for commuting, shopping, and entertainment. It’s expensive and time-consuming to overhaul an urban transport system – and political.

Change – particularly big change – always creates winners and losers. The Clean Air Zone, proposals to build housing in taller buildings in certain neighbourhoods, and our differing visions for a future mass transit system have been divisive issues in recent years.

And the political challenges of transformation go beyond disagreement about specific plans and policies. Britain has a very highly centralised political system. Local authorities have a lot of responsibilities, but limited power. They rely heavily on central government grants, which have been shrinking for more than a decade, and they have limited ability to raise their own revenues. Local authorities like Bristol are facing a squeeze on budgets when we need them to drive investment in transforming our cities.

Ironically, there has also been a push to devolve power to regional authorities in an attempt to bring decision-making power from Westminster and closer to the people who are affected. The West of England Combined Authority is part of this national experiment. Yet the presence of two authorities with overlapping mandates in some critical areas (such as transport) further complicates governance in the region. Bristol suffers from convoluted devolution.

What does all this mean for the future of our city?

We need to embrace city living as part of the solution to the environmental challenges we face and invest in making Bristol a place people want to be. A truly sustainable city is a liveable city. There are already many choices, technologies and policies that can be implemented to improve our homes, public spaces and infrastructure while reducing our collective environmental impact. Some of this we can do as individuals, community groups, or companies. Some will require action at a larger scale.

As a result, we need to confront the governance challenges we face. We need to make the case for giving cities more resources and powers to accelerate action. As political theorist Benjamin Barber argued in his book If Mayors Ruled the World, national governments around the world have been too slow to act on urgent challenges. 

Local city leaders across the public, non-profit and private sectors are better placed to understand the challenges and make the kinds of changes required, but they need the resources and authority to do so.

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  • Peter Coleman-Smith

    The articles says “A truly sustainable city is a liveable city.” I completely agree with this – and it’s just as true for wildlife as well as it is for people. Connected, unpolluted green and blue spaces, managed for nature are a vital component of liveable cities. Without this they are almost unlivable for nature and much, much less so for humans.

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