I’m concerned for the future. Perhaps it’s this concern that pushed me into my area of studies, beginning with Marine Biology. Years later and I’m an Environmental Consultant, literally working every day with businesses to use my concern as a productive tool for change and to help bring about positive impact. But for every victory in one place, there’s a loss somewhere else. In the long run, I’m concerned that the victories will be few and far between.
When I was growing up, my community didn’t believe in sustainability and environmental behaviour because we didn’t need to believe. We lived it. We watered the plants at night so that the soil would absorb the moisture better. We had load shedding of energy so we had to get used to the power being on and off sporadically. Back then, people used a laundrette. Now, everyone has a washing machine in their house. Consumerism is so unconscious and it pains me more than you could know.
Now, throw a pandemic into the mix. Some people have made friends with their neighbours, whereas others have found themselves completely isolated. Family and friends who would help and support each other in numerous ways suddenly found themselves independent and struggling. This has got me wondering, could cities and communities have been better prepared for disaster?
The aim of SDG11 is to ‘Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. Are we doing that?
Infrastructure built today needs to stand the test of time and prove both robust and valuable. Just think how many schools have been torn down, apartment blocks demolished, and old business premises levelled because they were not futureproof. By 2050, most of the world’s population will live in cities, so it’s really there that sustainable development will be tested the hardest.
With urbanisation ramping up, can we really build sustainable cities that will have to house more and more people? Can the new homes match the pace of people moving to the city, and will they be built quickly, cheaply, and sustainably enough to meet environmental targets? Will the air only continue to get more polluted or can we counteract emissions? It’s hard to know.
In India, one of the worst-hit regions of the pandemic, sub-optimal housing and crowding in the largest cities have been pointed to as the key drivers of the surge in cases. No country’s population is increasing by numbers as large as India’s, and this surge is met by poor infrastructure, unplanned urban sprawl, and a lack of solutions. 90% of Covid cases in India were in urban areas, where SDG 11 faces the biggest uphill battle because inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable communities are a pipe dream.
Fighting sprawl and a pandemic whilst trying to improve business and job opportunities, resilient communities, and local economies requires investment into the foundations of an area that are often unavailable. Without the funds for green spaces, urban planning, public transport, and affordable housing, how can the poorest parts of India and countries with a similar economic challenge, ever hope to solve this SDG?
The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network proposes some excellent ideas in this guide, as to how countries like India can strengthen.
France has a law that I adore. To decrease the environmental impact of new construction projects, new buildings in France must have a rooftop garden or solar panels fitted. This is great for insulation, water filtering, energy generation, and more. It also brings more greenery into the city and can create beautiful rooftop community spaces that can bring the occupants of a building together.
Stronger communities are not easy to design, and in truth, there’s no guarantee that even if you do everything right, that the people in the community will get involved. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Building a community garden or allotments might not turn your neighbour into your best friend, but it might mean that one lawnmower can be shared between a dozen homes. Buying an electric-powered bus might not convert everyone into public transport users overnight, but if the routes are convenient and prices are low or subsidised, it can help.
The mechanisms that create a solid community start with small ideas that bring people together, create a sense of good health and wellbeing, and are easy to maintain.
I want to finish this article by talking a little bit about Masdar. On the edge of Abu Dhabi lies the first green ghost town. Conceived around 15 years ago, the United Arab Emirates was keen to push the boundaries of what we thought was possible for sustainable cities. Masdar could have been a hotbed of sustainable innovation, a place where real cleantech solutions were born, and where thousands of people could live and breathe without leaving a large carbon footprint.
Instead, the project lays unfinished. Far from being a net zero city, the $22bn project has had its completion date moved back to 2030, with the chief designer admitting that the carbon output would not be zero, but maybe half as much as a comparable city. Masdar is, of course, simply part of the process, of trial and error, but, can we really afford to experiment on such a scale? If Masdar was the city designed to be futureproof, then, well, I’m concerned for the future.