Sustainable Cities? Not without People was the takeaway from the SOW2016 in Stockholm

By Rebecca Leigh Rutt
Stephanie Loveless

Today kicked off the first event in the Nordic State of the World 2016 event series, starting in Stockholm. The event was hosted by Fores, the Forum for Reforms, Entrepreneurship and Sustainability, a green think tank working to ignite urban sustainability and other environmental debates in Sweden. The afternoon opened with a warm welcome by Fores President Mattias Goldman while Markus Larsson, Program chief of Fores’s Environment and Climate section, moderated the event. Representing WorldWatch Institute Europe, Stephanie Loveless opened the presentations with an introduction of the new State of the World (SoW) 2016 publication, ‘Can Cities Be Sustainable?’. Sandra de Olivera, Research Fellow at Nordregio continued the discussion with a focus on inclusive urban planning in the Nordic region.

The red-thread of the day was social sustainability, with Stephanie presenting examples from the new SOW2016 book about social inclusiveness and people-centered development from a number of cities around the world. Sandra discussed the contradictions that can emerge when striving for democratic engagement in diverse societies and an overarching emphasis on public sector efficiency. All three presentations pointed to the importance of social sustainability as part of the equation for creating sustainable cities, alongside perhaps more prominent efforts toward environmental and economic sustainability. Stephanie’s presentation also aimed to remind the audience that creating sustainable cities is not just about meeting economic targets or environmental goals, but that in any given place, people will cialis have different visions about how their city should look and what is the right way to get there.

Inclusive urban planning and the role of technology

One of the interesting components of inclusive urban planning that Sandra spoke about was the role that technology has played in the ability of municipalities to gather more input from citizens for the processes surrounding new urban developments. Nordic cities are quickly developing digital platforms and modeling tools used in combination with face-to-face interaction as a way to engage more citizens in shaping their communities. Amongst the apparent benefits of inclusive planning Sandra mentioned is that citizen feedback allows for tailor-fit solutions to respond to needs and desires of communities. Of course, inclusive planning does not only mean involving more citizens, but it also calls for incorporating more types of stakeholders, not least the private sector. In addition, she suggested that inclusive planning lends itself to social sustainability by combatting segregation.

Perhaps linking urban planning with citizens through technology is an obvious evolution given that we live in the digital age. The growth of cities appears to be spurring a sense of urgency in city planners and governments to develop cities more quickly and efficiently, in order to accommodate incoming residents and perhaps, under the current circumstances, digital tools assist with these processes. In fact, as Sandra pointed out, by 2050, 90% of the population in both Denmark and Sweden will live in urban areas and these tools help to answer the demands of growing urban centers. Yet, ambitions to include more citizens in planning have also come about in a time of shrinking municipal budgets and rapid urbanization. Moreover, do digital tools maintain or even provide for a greater degree of democracy in a context of increased privatization in urban development? Perhaps it also depends on who has access to participate, or not, in the digitization of inclusive planning.

Do citizens really know what their cities need?

Sandra’s presentation also led us to wonder, do citizens know best what their cities need? Though she clearly sees the potential is inclusive planning, she reminded the audience not to ‘romanticize the citizen’ (ie, assume they know best) but to recognize that inclusive processes are constituted by diverse voices, and as such are not always easy; rather they have a tendency to be messy, lengthy and result in unintended outcomes. Perhaps something makers of digital planning tools seek to do is not only include more citizen input but also streamline the process. Either way, there is a clear trend in actions to improve inclusive urban planning and only time will tell if such tools and citizen and private sector stakeholders themselves can pick up the slack, or better yet, enhance the activities of municipal urban planners.

Highlights from the roundtable

A roundtable discussion following the event allowed for the mix of public, private, NGO and academic participants to raise critical lingering questions. Three issues that featured prominently were the importance of failure, the role of degrowth in achieving urban sustainability and the difficult reality of understanding impact.

Let's talk about failure, shall we?

Failure was highlighted as a needed compliment to ‘best practices’ and ‘success stories’. Those at the roundtable agreed that too often, failures are obscured, despite the fact that they offer some of the best opportunities for learning and making constructive changes upon moving forward with projects. Everyone acknowledged the structural problem of a need to project the image of success for the sake of, for instance, maintaining funding in the uncertain global and national economic contexts. Still, participants called for the involved institutions to engage with more openness about the difficulties encountered in urban planning and management, with an eye to the larger social, environmental and economic sustainability goals for the future.

Measure sustainability & expanding our definitions of success

The difficulties in defining and measuring outcomes and understanding impact were raised often, first in Stephanie’s presentation at the start and later at the closing roundtable discussion. Indeed this is a pervasive issue that in reality presents complex trade-offs. Outcomes are clearly very closely connected to images of success (and failure), so there is an immediate incentive to, for instance, define goals that are achievable. We often also see goals being defined according to temporal constraints (short and medium term goals), which has implications for the quality of processes such as for participation. Does this inhibit efforts towards more complex objectives and in our ability to understand outcomes that don’t fit into a certain set of criteria? For example, as projects unfold, they likely tend to be a lot messier and less straightforward than planners anticipate, yet, it does not necessarily mean they are either a success or a failure. Rather, unintended outcomes demonstrate how realities on the ground are in fact enormously hard to quantify and as such, these realities should perhaps be legitimated. In other words, could or should the definition of success be left as a partly open question?

Mums the word on Degrowth?

Finally, discussions around degrowth, or perhaps misunderstandings around degrowth, was a topic that emerged several times throughout the day, and as usual, served to stimulate animated conversation. Many argued that we must continue to grow our economy while reducing consumption, aka decoupling, while others questioned the viability of this current modus operandi. Yet overall, it was clear to most that resource use at current levels is unsustainable, meaning that reshaping consumption patterns is an overarching requirement for cities of the future.
The first SOW2016 event in Stockholm was stimulating, provocative and engaging and started to paint a picture of how Nordic cities are addressing urban sustainability and mobilizing efforts toward reaching low carbon urban centers. Stay tuned to for highlights from the next SOW2016 events in Helsinki and Reykjavík!

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Read more about State of the World 2016 - HERE