Many of the world’s major cities are expanding and growing. Populations continue to move from rural to urban areas in search of new economic opportunities, to avoid the increasingly apparent impacts of climate change, or to escape conflict, economic uncertainty and persecution. As this long-term trend of global movement endures, it is clear that principles of sustainable development must be implemented as fully and as effectively as possible.
Enabling a sustainable quality of life
Creating sustainable urban settlements at all scales – both macro and micro – must be balanced. From large cities to smaller settlements, planning for growing populations must be undertaken prudently. This process should be led by an understanding of the economic function and rationale of new or expanding places: how residents will be adequately and affordably housed, but also how they will work and generate incomes capable of enabling a sustainable and acceptable quality of life.
In all regions of the world, there is an ongoing challenge to balance physical expansion: to densify existing urban systems while anticipating how future places can acquire or retain commercial and competitive strengths. The planning, use and funding of infrastructure has been critical to moving populations around urban areas quickly, sustainably and comfortably – and therefore driving resilient growth.
Micro level: sustainable growth of built environments
At the micro level, many approaches exist that could promote sustainable growth of built environments. These include the use of natural or waste materials in construction for small-scale buildings and “industrial” processes alike, and the acquisition of skills and local capabilities using vernacular construction methods to create local resilience. This involves creating new dwellings with sustainable materials, as well as creating new businesses and local supply chains that feed larger-scale production and construction processes.
Resistance to macro challenges to ensure a sustainable future
Sustainable development is also driven by personal capability. It is fundamentally important that individual citizens and local communities maintain their ability to create a built environment that suits their needs, utilises sustainable materials, is easily rebuilt in the face of climactic shocks and conflict, and creates skills and an entrepreneurial base that evolves and is resistant to macroeconomic upsets. Balancing the macro challenges of managing urban change with the micro elements of community and enterprise, is a necessity for our sustainable future.
Technology and digital infrastructure accessible for all
Looking to a post-2030 context, we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic that economies can change course quickly in response to shocks, but at different speeds, depending on their social, organisational and governance characteristics. Technology and digital infrastructure have enabled a wide range of industry sectors to continue operating as the pandemic took hold.
Societies must, however, take full account of the profound socio-economic consequences of these shocks where the power of technology is not so readily available to certain communities, or able to sustain all jobs and services in the same way. Furthermore, our ability to build-in physical, economic and social resilience for urban areas must also balance the need for job-generating economic growth in places with rapidly growing populations, alongside the critical need to move all urban economies onto effective net zero emissions pathways.
Indeed, moving all settlements towards a zero-carbon goal should of itself create an abundance of new economic opportunities in green technologies and associated services, if only we can ensure fair access and transition for all citizens into these opportunities.