Rethinking Sustainable Cities: from slogan to implementation

“Cities are seen as critical pathways of global change.” They are “catalytic of other changes,” said geographer Susan Parnell, a researcher at the African Centre for Cities. She was speaking at the Mistra Urban Futures (MUF) seminar held at the University of Cape Town, March 8.

Parnell co-hosted the seminar, ‘Rethinking Sustainable Cities: from slogan to implementation,’ with David Simon, the director of Mistra Urban Futures. It brought together geographers, urban planners, city representatives, and students.

Collectively, the MUF platforms (Gothenburg, Kisumu, Switzerland and more recently, Cape Town) form an international-scale research and knowledge centre, which is a transdisciplinary collaboration involving researchers, practitioners and policy-makers. The MUF’s agenda is centered on the four key dimensions of urban justice: social, cultural, environmental and economic.

MUF has three pillars of focus: Fair Cities, Accessible Cities and Green Cities. Researchers are writing background papers on each of these pillars, foreshadowing some of the chapters to be included in the MUF’s free online book that will published before the MUF inaugural conference to be held in Gotham in September this year.

Accessible Cities, written by Jon Waters, addresses two fundamental urban issues: density—how this reality needs to be locally contextualized and dealt with, and accessibility—the affordability and appropriateness of basic needs that are necessary to achieve social well-being and social sustainability.

Fair Cities, written by Susan Parnell, is an attempt to tackle the question, “How do we think of a utopian idea in a way that is practicable?” As Parnell noted, “The intellectual task is to deal with complexity, not to steer clear of it, but to embrace it– to see where there really are points of conflict… and to look for the resolution of that conflict.”

Green Cities, soon to be written by David Simon, will look at the history and evolution of urban planning concepts and their role in sustainability discourses and debates. Simon’s paper will tackle, among other topics, green versus brown agendas, elite conservation legacy, strong versus weak sustainability, and narrow versus broad or holistic environmentalism, all with clear links to fairness and accessibility. As he said, “Green discourses are often like a post-colonial hangover” and there is a need to fill the void of ‘the urban’ in green economy development.

Simon announced that Mistra has plans to expand its research to Asia and Latin America. It is also in the processes of commencing its strategic plan for 2016-2019, which includes new local interaction platforms, international interventions like monitoring and revising the Urban Sustainable Development goal and Habitat III. Importantly, he highlighted the fundamental need to break binaries between academics and practitioners.

The take home message of the MUF was undoubtedly that global environmental discourses continue to undervalue urban agendas. As such, there is a need to “get away from this idea of expert knowledge,” according to Simon, and tackle ‘the urban’ in increasingly collaborative and interdisciplinary ways that are self-reflective.

As Parnell concluded, “It is only when we recognize ourselves in a practice, that we truly recognize the practice.”

Photo credit: MISTRA

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