Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Blog

If the Future is Urban, it's Got to be Sustainable Too

Barbara Norman


Kat Maryschuk

| 4 mins read

Our future is urban. The scale of urban growth is massive from any perspective, with the global population growing from seven billion to nearly ten billion by 2050, with the increase mainly in Africa, India and China. Managing the twenty-first-century urban future is on the minds of leaders from the global institutions to local leaders and planners.

The seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals, adopted September 2015, are essential in managing this growth sensitively and fairly. The United Nations High Level Political Forum (HLPF) gathered in New York City this July to assess progress in implementing the goals. The theme this year is "transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies" focussing the goals concerning water, energy, sustainable cities, consumption and production, biodiversity, and implementation.

“Cities are the spaces where all SDGs can be integrated to provide holistic solutions to the challenges of poverty, exclusion, climate change and risks” said Ms Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN Habitat.

We need an integrated approach to urban policy by governments and stakeholders including national governments, a stance adopted by the UN New Urban Agenda in Quito 2016.

A rallying cry for a National Urban Policy

In the context of future urban growth expectations, National Urban Policy (NUP) is experiencing a renaissance.

NUP’s function is to improve the liveability and sustainability of urban settlements large and small. The combined recent report on the Global State of National Urban Policy stresses the critical role of national urban policy in implementing global agreements on sustainable development and climate change. The conclusions call for a great commitment to national urban policy.

In fact, calls for a national urban policy or strategy are coming from many different quarters – business, public institutions, social policy leaders, scientists and environmentalists. Recent examples include the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade representing leading businesses calling for a national urban strategy for Canada (Canadian Board of Trade). In Australia, the Labor Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development, Anthony Albanese stresses the need for a meaningful partnership between the national government and growing cities (Albanese 2018).

Reinforcing this is the combined call from UN Habitat and UN Agencies including WHO, UNESCO, and UNISDR who highlight the importance of partnerships and well-designed national urban policies.

Implementing the sustainable development agenda

Implementing national urban policy cannot be tackled in isolation. It requires coordination between levels of government. In my view, it should also be nested within a broader national sustainable development framework to ensure that it is connected to related government actions – health, education, defence, and communications.

A number of countries have experimented with institutional arrangements that report on progress on implementing national urban polices and more broadly a sustainability agenda to ensure transparency and accountability in progress towards a more sustainable future over the short and longer terms.

The United Kingdom established a Sustainable Development Commission that lasted 10 years (2001 – 2011). Its role was ‘to act as a catalyst for change across government by consistently demonstrating how the principles of sustainable development can be used to help find lasting solutions‘, with four key roles – advisory, capacity building, advocacy and scrutiny.

More recently, Wales established the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales to encourage longer term thinking to provide for the well being of the future generations. It is a unique Act that integrates seven well-being goals including prosperity, resilience, health, equality, cohesion, culture and global responsibility.

A shared vision

The development of more sustainable cities is more than smart cities in that cities are part of larger systems – environmental, social and economic.

In my recent book, Sustainable Pathways for our cities and regions, I recommend seven pathways for implementing a more sustainable future (i) Planning within planetary boundaries, (ii) Long-term vision with targets, (iii) Adaptive integrated planning, (iv) National sustainable development strategies, (v) Net zero carbon precincts, (vi) Innovative platforms for collaboration and evaluation and (vii) Green growth (PLANNING).

That is a shared vision on sustainable development implemented by all levels in partnership with transparency and accountability – a foundation for a more sustainable urban future for all.

  • Barbara-Norman_avatar.jpg

    Barbara Norman

    Professor Barbara Norman is Director of Canberra Urban & Regional Futures (CURF), University of Canberra, Australia.

    Articles by Barbara Norman
Volume 95, Issue 1

Latest Journal Issue

Volume 95, Issue 1

Includes a collection on the Future of Public Service Broadcasting, edited by Suzanne Franks and Jean Seaton. This features articles such as 'The Governance of the BBC' by Diane Coyle; 'A Public Service Internet - Reclaiming the Public Service Mission' by Helen Jay; and 'BBC Funding: Much Ado about the Cost of a Coffee a Week' by Patrick Barwise. There are a wide range of other articles including 'Back to the Stone Age: Europe's Mainstream Right and Climate Change’ by Mitya Pearson and 'Labour, the Unions and Proportional Representation' by Cameron Rhys Herbert. Finally, there is a selection of book reviews such as Lyndsey Jenkins's review of Fighting For Life: The Twelve Battles that Made Our NHS and the Struggle for Its Future by Isabel Hardman, and Victoria Brittain's review of Three Worlds, Memoirs of an Arab-Jew by Avi Shlaim.

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