Reimagining our cities

Discussion on sustainable urban development has taken centre stage in the backdrop of rising urban problems globally. All tiers of governments face multiple challenges in developing and running cities in a way that continues to create economic prosperity and employment while not straining land and resources, and without negatively affecting our environment

Urban infrastructure in most of our cities has been built to cater to the requirements and demands of the people living and moving into cities, without giving much thought to ecological sustainability. The natural disasters taking place in our urban areas, like flooding in Chennai a few months ago, are the warning signs telling us that we are building our cities wrong. The studies show that wetlands in Chennai were encroached upon and natural drainages were blocked that led to such a situation that caused many deaths and damage of millions. It is high time for city leadership to augment the pace of building city resilience to ensure a safe future for their cities.

Urban Sustainability

Cities are on the frontlines of climate impacts and urgently need to build resilience, with more than 80 per cent of the overall annual global costs of adaption to climate change estimated to be borne by urban areas, according to the World Bank.
Urban infrastructure is largely built without giving much thought to ecological sustainability. A resource-intensive consumer society drives urban lifestyles, contributing significantly to the pressure on urban ecosystems. Public representatives and municipal officials need to strive together to create stronger and independent institutions at a local level to look after the city management in a sustainable way.

Urban planners and city leadership should chalk out an integrated model for environmental management, where all use of land, air and water is planned across sectors, so that growing and sometimes conflicting demands on ecosystems can be managed effectively. Cities also need to focus on research and development for exploring innovative approaches to solve local problems. Local bodies in India lack high-quality R&D infrastructure which is a significant driver of sustainability. There are other challenges local bodies face that emerge out of ineffective governance structures, lack of autonomy of urban local bodies, lack of co-ordination between various bodies involved in urban management, and lack of financial independence.

It is the responsibility of policymakers at national and international levels to devise a strategy through which transition to sustainable development becomes possible for our cities because it will not be enough if only a handful of major cities make the transition to sustainable development. All small and emerging cities too have to follow sustainable measures in order to achieve the targets set under Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations last year.

SDGs and the role of cities

The 11th Sustainable Development Goal says, ‘Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. Cities in developing countries need to take a giant leap to achieve this goal by 2030. Around 3.5 billion people live in cities and out of them, 828 million people live in slums. The rapid pace of urbanization is exerting pressure on fresh water supplies, sewage, the living environment, and public health. If we take the example of Mumbai that is considered the economic capital of India, has around 50 per cent population living in slums. People living in slums are just not reflecting the housing problem in cities but also of equitable delivery of basic amenities. There are hundreds of thousands slum settlements in cities across the country which are not recognized and these settlements do not get basic amenities such as sanitation, health, sewage and water because they are not existent on paper. SDG strives to ‘ensure adequate, safe and affordable housing with basic amenities for all by 2030’. The Government of India has already launched Housing for All scheme through which it targets to provide housing to one and all by 2022. It aims to benefit resident families that do not own formal settlements and will cover over 4,000 towns during its execution phase. The programme supports the development of affordable housing (of up to 30 square metres) with basic civic infrastructure such as water, sanitation, sewerage, roads and electricity. This is an enormous task seeing the existing gap in the housing sector. There is need to solve the housing crisis not only by building affordable houses but also look at alternative options like rental housing and upgradation of slums. These initiatives though, need a systematic mechanism to achieve the desired outcome. Governments can also plan for high density housing projects in cities which can bring efficiency gains by reducing resource and energy consumption. It is also important to consult different stakeholders and research institutions to execute such projects to find out successful approaches for execution.

Another target set under the SDG-11 is to ‘enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries’. It also aims to strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage. Union government in India has launched the rejuvenation programs and heritage conservation plans for cities and Smart Cities Mission. The objectives of these schemes are aligned with the target set under SDG.

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