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Rightsizing, city sustainability and the growth dilemma

19 March 2015

You’ve got to hand it to the Americans; they have a way with words. I was reminded of this last Friday during a conversation with a politician from Cleveland Ohio. This was at the Focus 2015 event hosted by the French Embassy in Washington which brought U.S. and French city mayors together in advance of the COP21 Global Environment summit being held in Paris in December 2015.

The Cleveland story

He was sharing the story of his city’s economic transition after the downturn in the US steel industry. On the shores of Lake Erie, Cleveland had thrived on heavy industry during the first half of the twentieth century. Since then, a combination of familiar factors – including technological change and globalisation had reshaped the local economy. This sectoral shift was accompanied by a significant population decline, with Cleveland’s numbers dropping from 900,000 in 1950 to around 390,000 today.

So far, so familiar. Many EU cities have experienced the same trend, which Eastern European cities in particular continue to face today. On this side of the pond, we speak about shrinking cities and regard it as a pernicious threat. Our Cleveland councilman’s language was a bit different, and he described their recent experience as one of right-sizing; implying that the post-industrial population transition was one of adjustment to a new ideal. Here in Europe, it remains almost unthinkable for any politician to stand on such a ticket. For despite all the evidence they might face, prospective politicians will campaign on returning their city to its days of glory and growth. Even when they know it’s never going to happen. Any contradictory view is considered heretical, which is a pity.

So I was impressed by Cleveland’s more honest approach, and by the fact that although post-industrial cities might have to downsize, this might not always be a bad thing. The councilman’s main presentation was on the city’s recent developments, like the ecovillage demonstration project. It seems that Cleveland is now a cleaner and healthier place to live in. After all, the mantra of growth at all costs has largely contributed to getting the planet in the state it’s in now.

Sustainable cities

Which takes me back to the Focus 2015 conference. Anyone who has read Naomi Klein’s latest book knows that the clock is ticking on our planet’s future. Most of us accept that as an urban species, with the majority of the world’s population living in cities, it is here that the battle for the planet will be won and lost. Today, cities dominate in population numbers (54% of the total), economic output (70-80%), energy consumption (80%) and greenhouse gas production (80%). As UN-Habitat states, “While cities are at the heart of today’s global crisis, they are also the source of solutions for a sustainable future.

In the light of this, how are cities doing? According to the recent Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index, the answer is ‘better, but with room for improvement.” If you’re like me, you probably get tired of the almost weekly arrival of a new city index, driven by social media’s love of lists. But the Arcadis one is a little different. It neatly classifies cities under three headings – People, Planet and Profit – within each of which there is a set of criteria.

For the curious amongst you, Europe does pretty well, securing 7 of the top 10 spots. And who comes out numero uno? Frankfurt overall, followed by London and Copenhagen. And Frankfurt is not standing still either. The target for its new master plan “100% Climate Protection” is that by 2050, 100% of energy will originate from renewable (and mainly local) sources causing a 95% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. And our American cousins? The top US city, Boston comes in at 15, whilst New York languishes at number 20, largely due to its poor infrastructure and high cost of housing.

Some missing criteria

Sustainable development has been defined by the United Nations as: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Consequently, we are also talking about social sustainability, and I was pleased to see that Arcadis ranked Rotterdam – a favourite city of mine – as number 1 for People (and 5th overall). But when I explored the criteria for this I was a little surprised. They included work-life balance, health and inequality. But strangely it makes no reference to tolerance. In our diverse world this seems an important consideration, particularly at a time when Europe’s social cohesion is under serious threat. Perhaps it’s a metric which is too hard to assess, but something which organisations like Cities of Migration are conducting innovative work around .

Another factor missing amongst the criteria – relating to environment (Planet in Arcadis-speak) this time – was any reference to food. Awareness levels around food miles, food security and water sufficiency are on the rise. The Ukrainian crisis has sent tremors through the commodities markets relating to wheat production levels, whilst only last week there were extensive reports about Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, running out of water .

Food is a hot topic, and a growing issue for cities, as our recent article on Front Line Food indicated. Its importance to cities is also reflected in the significant number of active food-related URBACT projects as our current programme draws to a close. Four of them have a food-related focus, which includes the URBACT Markets project , Sustainable Food , Gastronomic Cities and Diet for a Green Planet

The value of city learning and transfer

I have already sung the praises of the Diet for a Green Planet model in a previous blog. But at their final conference this week it has been exciting for me to see the way in which other cities in Europe are adopting its key features – using public procurement to increase the availability of organic, locally produced food in school and care home kitchens.  By promoting healthy eating habits, reducing food miles and supporting sustainable farming techniques they are doing their bit to help save the planet.

The Diet project – one of six URBACT transfer pilots – shows how effective models can be replicated elsewhere. The importance of promoting learning amongst cities was one of the key take aways from the Focus 2015 event, so the timing is opportune. As URBACT launches its new programme, which includes a new transfer network model, the programme has an important role to play in supporting the development of more sustainable cities across Europe.