Tram on Santos Valongo waterfront

+ Our cities are facing more challenges than ever, despite having the Sustainable Urban Development model around for the past couple of decades. Should we find a new model?

Is the Sustainable Urban Development model still relevant to planning our cities for the future or should we be looking for a different model? I think that the Sustainable Urban Development paradigm is still the most advanced model that is able to capture the complex realities of our natural and built urban environments. The challenge though is in the application of the model. 

After only a few decades of evolution and a certain level of maturity, the Sustainable Urban Development paradigm seems to be underperforming. It is quite challenging to name a few cities that are managing to successfully address the social, economic and environmental issues through a comprehensive, proportionate and concurrent approach. This applies to both developed and developing cities, despite many in both categories claiming to be adopting this planning model. The World Cities Report 2016, issued recently by UN Habitat, demonstrates this point well.

Some cities demonstrate a healthy economy, but lack social resilience or suffer from environmental pollution – an issue common in certain rapidly developing Asian cities like Shanghai. Then there are many cities with progressive environmental policies and regulations, but which suffer from divided communities and struggling economies – a problem afflicting some European cities; some studies suggest that London and Madrid have the highest levels of inequality and economic segregation in Europe. And many Latin American cities are good illustrations of cohesive communities, which are suffering from a vast array of economic and environmental challenges, including São Paulo. 

Obviously, there are several other categories in which cities around the world could be grouped, according to their performance across issues like wealth distribution, environmental regulations or social cohesion. However, I think the key point is that the balanced and comprehensive approach, which is a central proposition of the Sustainable Urban Development model, is very difficult to spot functioning in the real world. 

Nevertheless, I don’t think it is the model that is faulty, rather it’s our application of the model. In fact, I think that the Sustainable Urban Development paradigm is still the most advanced model that is able to capture the complex realities of our natural and built urban environments. The problem is that, for so many reasons, we have not been applying the central propositions of this paradigm, and thus have forgotten what they really meant. 

Whilst many planners are aware of the importance of the integrated and context-specific planning process, I believe that few actually follow this process in practice. The representative and effective stakeholders’ consultation is a basic element in the Sustainable Urban Development planning process, nonetheless, the growing divide within our communities does not indicate the successful application of such consultation.    

I also think that planners can make better use of the latest tools that can help provide a deeper understanding of the inter-relatedness of the social, economic and environmental issues within our cities. For example, Big Data analytics, which rely on digital infrastructure could be a powerful tool. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is another effective spatial analysis technology. 

Combining these different views of the city can result in the depth and breadth of understanding the sustainable urban development model requires. Complex and challenging as this may be to apply, I believe that the urban planning model has to capture the multidimensional nature of urban challenges to be successful. The New Urban Agenda considered at the recent Habitat III could be an opportunity to revive the Sustainable Urban Development model.