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To build sustainable cities, involve those who live in them

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By Sylvie Albert, Manish Pandey

· 4 min read

Cities have an important role in making progress on sustainability and climate change issues. And for them to achieve this, urban residents need to be involved in achieving set goals. This means that cities need to provide opportunities and guidance to their residents to help them make progress.

While national targets — like Canada’s goal to reduce its annual greenhouse gas emissions to 110 megatonnes in 2030 from 191 megatonnes in 2019 — are important, they do not mean much to a city resident or an organization.

It can be difficult to determine how to address large and complex national issues. These need to be translated from theoretical commitments into measurable goals to create a sense of commitment and urgency. For example, Canadian emission targets need to be broken down into actionable objectives at the city level, which would make it more meaningful to its residents, who can then make small contributions that amount to significant outcomes for the city and beyond.

Localizing global goals

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are recognized as strategically important for sustainability. They cannot be achieved without commitment at every scale, from individuals to different levels of government.

Public and private organizations in cities can set the stage to engage everyone to contribute to shared goals. The SDGs may seem large and difficult to achieve, but they can be localized and broken down into achievable pieces.

This is being done by dozens of cities internationally who are reporting their progress in voluntary local reviews. The European Aalborg Charter is evidence of a can-do attitude among cities.

A crisis of leadership

Urban leadership needs to develop a shared vision that guides residents on their individual and collective contributions. The combined achievements at the urban level contribute to global improvements. Measurable indicators and targets are set — such as monitoring energy consumption — reflect a commitment to targets.

Taking collaborative action on larger goals can address concerns with leadership that have been recently reported in the media. The response of world leaders to the ongoing climate challenges and the global COVID-19 pandemic have produced a global crisis of trust. People need to see action and be part of the solutions that are being proposed.

To build trust, city leadership needs partners, collaborators and residents to work with them on setting goals, developing a measurement system and collecting data. There are a number of available platforms and technologies to assist with developing a measurement system and engaging residents in reporting.

Many of these are being used by cities: the PEG platorm in Winnipeg, Man., for example, is designed to address local issues while considering data security.

The role of cities

According to Canada’s 2030 Agenda National Strategy, cities are “epicentres for jobs, growth, diversity, culture and innovation, and they provide frontline responses to address Canada’s most serious social and environmental challenges, including poverty, food insecurity, disaster relief, homelessness and crime.”

A similar perspective is echoed in the UN Agenda 2030. These documents are evidence of preliminary commitments to sustainability, and need to be translated into goals at the local level. London, Ont., has developed a process for localizing the SDGs.

Other platforms that provide opportunities for benchmarking and sharing information include award and recognition programs. For example, the Intelligent Community Forum Award shares the achievement of several cities in Canada and internationally. The European Smart Cities benchmarking program provides a measurement system that features a number of important sustainability metrics and allow cities to learn from one another.

At the city level, work begins with agreeing on significant local goals that require partnerships. For example, Guelph, Ont. — in partnership with Wellington County — is working on a smart sustainable food system. Other communities internationally are working to eradicate poverty.

Figure 1: Farms in the Guelph—Wellington region are working on sustainable agriculture. Source: Shutterstock

Issy-Les-Moulineaux, a commune in the greater Paris area, has a history of digital innovation, citizen engagement in green initiatives, and working collaboratively to improve livability.

Measurable goals

In addition, since sustainability is an evolving space, we provide a discussion on new important indicators such as measuring citizen happiness to develop compassionate cities; improving our understanding and actions toward regenerative and restorative circular economies; and growing through sustainable ecosystems.

Establishing measurable goals at the city level needs and will result in the engagement of residents. Everybody wins in the long run — quality of life improves, urban governance is more effective, and businesses develop more efficient models. Canada has lagged behind other countries in localizing sustainability targets identified in the Canadian 2030 Agenda — for Canadian cities, there is a lot more to be done.

This article is also published on The Conversation. Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Dr. Sylvie Albert is a professor of strategy and leadership at the University of Winnipeg. She is a strategist with 30+ years in senior management roles, economic development, and management consulting in government, not-for-profit, and private sector. She published multiple books, research articles, contributed to government policy, and presented at international conferences on Digitalization and Community Development.

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Dr. Manish Pandey is a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Winnipeg with an extensive portfolio of research on productivity and comparative performance in labor economics, public economics, macroeconomics and immigration.

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