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How Far Along is the UK in its Urban Sustainability Efforts?

The term ‘sustainability’ has gained widespread popularity in the last few decades. But it was first coined in an environmental context by Hans Carl von Carlowitz, a German forest Erin 1712.

The evolution of contemporary environmental movements in the late 1960s and 1970s brought the term ‘sustainability’ to the attention of the public. But it was the rise of urbanization that put sustainable urban development on the map. A 2021 Statista report found that there are currently 55.66 million people living in urban areas in the United Kingdom.

Since 1960, the urban population in the UK has grown by 15.5 million, while the rural population has shrunk by around 630,000. A trend that is said to continue worldwide with the urban population almost doubling its current size by 2050.A report by the World Bank found that currently more than 80% of the global GDP is generated in cities.

In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs said, “Big cities have difficulties in abundance because they have people in abundance.”

Between 2002 and 2012, global urban waste doubled from 680 milliontons per year to more than 1.3 billion tons per year.

In the face of rising population, transport and infrastructural issues, climate crisis, need for affordable housing and the availability of basic jobs and services, urban sustainability becomes an increasingly important motion for the sustenance of a healthy and balanced life.

Urban sustainability aims to improved city's social, economic and environmental conditions to ensure the quality of life and well-being of current and future residents. The definition is a rewording of ‘sustainable development’ as defined in the Brundtlkand Report 1987.

The pandemic showed us that climate risks don't only come in the form of disasters like floods and earthquakes and that there are long-term health impacts associated with being cut off from green space. Urban areas covered with natural assets such as parks, trees, fields, rivers and lakes are referred to as ‘green; and ‘blue’ spaces.

The proportion of England’s urban areas made up of greenspace has declined– just 35% of households with annual incomes below £10,000 are within a 10-minute walk of a publicly accessible natural green space.

In James Bevan’s speech “Clean Up, Green Up and Level Up: How to Build a Future City”, the Environment Agency Chief Executive said, “The NHS could save over £2 billion in treatment costs if everyone in England had equal access to good quality green space.”

The spatial distribution of greenspace tends to be very unequal. In the United States, more affluent areas tend to have a larger presence of private green space compared to more deprived areas. In the United Kingdom, urban forest is more abundant in peripheral areas than in central locations.

Walkable neighborhoods are another important feature of sustainable cities, as they offer positive benefits to public healthy providing activity-friendly environments and creating more vibrant streets.

Larger sidewalks can help in social interaction within neighborhoods and create a “sense of community’. We Park in Bangkok took abandoned and idle urban spaces and transformed them into stunning community parks.

But the benefits go beyond health, gardens and public parks create habitat for nature, help urban cooling which could reduce emissions from air conditioning, and slow the flow of surface water.

Similarly, integrated roads for bicycle lanes will decrease the need for cars and the emission of harmful gases. Milan’s 35km new cycle lanes stretch all the way to the outskirts and have totally transformed central streets like Corso Bueno Aires.

Bristol too boast san extensive cycling network, picturesque and well-connected, these routes usher residents and visitors to use more eco-friendly modes of transportation.

Short on space, cities have been finding ways to grow ‘upwards’ creating ‘Vertical Forests’ like in Milan where two residential tower blocks built in 2014 are covered with 800 trees, 4500 shrubs and 15,000 plants.

However, ‘urban sustainability’ has been criticized for its over-reliance and usage of natural resources. The notion of urban sustainability is a contradictory one because cities will always be dependent - consumers - and are likely to be major degraders of the environment simply because of the intensity of economic and social activity taking place in such areas.

In 2022, when UK’s Climate Change Risk Assessment report was published it was found that the level of risk in the UK and the level of adaptation underway had widened; in other words, adaptation action was failing to keep pace with the worsening of climate risk.

While urban sustainable development may be a step towards solving issues related to climate risk, there exists a huge gap between the public declaration of principles and the implementation of concrete measures in most cities.

A Brief History of Policies for Sustainability in the UK

UK’s first response to the challenge of sustainable development was set out in ‘Sustainable Development: The UK Strategy 1994’. The document highlighted local authorities as a suitable delivery framework in partnership with all sectors of the community in achieving sustainable urban development.

The UK’s approach towards sustainable development has always been focused on spatial planning strategies and community involvement via a plan-led systemon a hierarchy of national policies. When ‘A Better Quality of Life - Strategy for Sustainable Development for the UK -1999’ was published, local governments were asked to prepare Local Agenda 21 strategies by the end of 2000 which saw increased initiatives for sustainability by local governments, community groups and citizens. By 2002, almost 400 LA21 programmers were developed but most of them struggled to involve ‘marginalized groups’ such as deprived communities, ethnic minorities, and young and elderly sections of the population. And development which ignores the essential needs of the poorest people whether in this country or abroad is not sustainable development at all. On 1 January2016, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — adopted by world leaders in September 2015 at an historic UN Summit — officially came into force. The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals include the use of renewable resources, energy efficiency, use of public transport, and accessible resources and services. In 2021, the UK acquiredheadline data for 83% of the globalSDG indicators (204 out of 247), up from 39% in 2017. In 2020, the UK government introduced a new programme ‘Community Action 2020 - Together We Can’ in an effortto revitalise localcommunity action in support of sustainable urbandevelopment. But urban sustainability also requires a steep up-frontexpense. Renewable technology, regional planning, waste management, better infrastructure and transport require greater tax-payer contribution to ensure long-termplanning and maintenance. So,What Now? The urbanist and author Jane Jacobs in her book Downtown Is for Peoplesaid, “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.” The logic behind that statement is simple, that cities shouldbe built for people. Not for cars, not for shops, not for streets,not for buildings. For people. As onerous as it may be to move away from profit-centred planning, urban planningshould keep peopleat the heart of what they do making it more humanistic and people-centred. The term ‘sustainability’ was at an all-time high in popularity in the UK in April 2022, scoringa perfect 100. This also means that more peopleare increasingly aware of the need to protect and support sustainable practices. In 2021, London introduced the Restart Project which teaches Londoners to repair broken electronic gadgets and how they consume them. Efforts such as the seat a micro level push communities toward smore sustainable development. The congestion charge implemented in 2003, charges a fee on vehicles entering a designated zone in central London during peak hours. This not only discourages the use of private cars but makes people reconsider their travel choices. Urban environments are complex systems, and a system-based approach will better enable people to manage this complexity and identify where nature-based solutions will be most effective. They are home to cut-throat economic development which while necessary, poses a direct threat to sustainable development if is not checked for accountability. Industries and businesses must be aware of their ecological footprints making sure that they continue to carry work on sustainable efforts.

But a recently published report by Reuters found that more than 500 business leaders had been forced to compromise on their sustainability efforts because of rising energy prices, costs associated with international trade barriers and the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Closing Thoughts

Cities are hugely important for our society and economy, ensuring they are sustainable by increasing resource efficiency, reducing land take, reducing emissions and waste and incorporating green and blue infrastructure offers huge opportunities socially, economically and environmentally.

Building cities that work - green, resilient and inclusive - requires intensive policy coordination, investment policies and implementation. Governments at all levels ,international, national and local have a crucial role to play in the implementation and equal distribution of urban sustainability.

Evidently, tackling the issue of (urban) sustainability isn’t a walk in the park but if we didn’t have this problem we would all have spaces to walk in a park.

Urban sustainability development requires more open conversation, result-oriented action and the coming together of people and stakeholder group sat all levels. None of these efforts can reach fruitions isolated and disjointed individual initiatives but as an integrated holistic strategy that involves members from all strata of society.

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