Sustainable cities depend on empowered citizens

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  • Most people live in cities, and most megacities are in the developing world
  • New technology can empower those people while making cities more sustainable
  • But for this to happen, citizens need to be involved and lobbies regulated

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Using technology to make a city more sustainable works best if its inhabitants participate in planning and implementation, according to a UN report.
The report, published this month by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), finds that a mix of innovative technology and regulation can help cities become more sustainable. This involves cities becoming better at, for example, managing traffic flow and pollution, relying less on non-renewable energy sources and providing services equally across income divides.
But such efforts can fail if they sideline residents, as powerful interests might act against the introduction of sustainable technologies and policies, the report warns.
For example, policies to support the deployment of renewable energy technologies can be hijacked and subverted by companies tied to fossil fuels, says Elizabeth Deakin, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States.
“Technologies that challenge the status-quo can be blocked by powerful interests,” says Deakin.

“People aren’t going to use technologies if you don’t create awareness and make it profitable for them.”

Padmashree Gehl Sampath, UNCTAD

The report quotes the densification policy of Cape Town in South Africa as an example of monitoring businesses, in this case construction companies. It states that private companies are crucial for building the housing needed in growing cities, but citizens must be consulted to ensure these homes meet their needs and are affordable.
Last year, for the first time ever, more people lived in cities than in the countryside, according to the UN. Most of the world’s megacities are now in developing countries, where city planning is still weak, but where technology can make a huge different in improving the lives of urban people, the report states.
Cities do best at rolling out such technologies if their governments “have made sustainable urban development a suitable and attractive option for individuals”, explains Padmashree Gehl Sampath, who heads UNCTAD’s science and technology taskforce.

Sampath, a co-author of the report, says that governments should offer cash and other incentives to local authorities to help involve citizens in implementing sustainable technology. For example, people need incentives to help reduce use of fossil fuels, she says.
“People aren’t going to use technologies if you don’t create awareness and make it profitable for them,” Sampath explains.
Developing countries have an advantage when striving to become more sustainable, because they can study and avoid the mistakes made in cities that developed earlier, says Tansuğ Ok, an economics officer at UNCTAD and co-author of the report.

The report highlights the example of Curitiba in Brazil, which created a bus transport system that uses dedicated bus lanes pioneered in Hamburg, Germany. As a result, the city’s bus system now transports 2.2 million passengers a day, up from 25,000 in 1974, without suffering additional congestion or pollution, the report says.
These kinds of developments, however, are only possible if cities are ready to learn from each other, says Ok. “What we advocate is mobilising the private sector and civil society, and looking at a region as a whole and not just city by city separately,” he says.