The growth of urban sustainability

By Matthew Lynch

How can cities leaders and businesses work more effectively together to make existing and future cities sustainable? What are the best, most efficient ways to meet the infrastructure needs of growing areas while upgrading the services to existing urban centers? What barriers, perceived and real, prevent city authorities from working with business in this critically important area? These are just three of the key questions we set out to explore when we started the Urban Infrastructure Initiative (UII) back in 2010.

It’s been a fascinating journey of discovery – and a pioneering one too. No other organization has attempted to leverage the combined expertise and experience of 14, diverse multi-national companies to help solve the formidable and often quite specific sustainable development challenges faced by cities.

For example, in the U.S. we worked with Philadelphia. Under the leadership of Mayor Michael Nutter, Philadelphia has become a national urban sustainability leader. Mayor Nutter has set the bold objective of making Philadelphia “the greenest city in America.” To make progress towards this vision, the city has developed Greenworks Philadelphia, an ambitious and comprehensive urban sustainability action plan to achieve 15 measurable targets by 2015. The WBCSD UII team identified a portfolio of potential solutions to further drive efficiencies, synergies and transformational outcomes in addition to the substantial progress the city has already made under Greenworks. You can see perspectives of the mayor and others on this innovative engagement in this short video.

As highlighted in this Philadelphia collaboration, by engaging in a frank and open dialogue with city leaders and their own specialist internal teams, the multi-sector UII were able to deliver solutions reports tailored to each city’s special needs and circumstances. In each case these contained actionable, ‘vendor-neutral’, holistic and integrated recommendations – all based on international best practice.

It’s still early days, but the cities involved are already acting on their UII reports, all of which are public documents anyone can view. Each contains too many recommendations to list here, so here are just three examples:

  • Yixing (China) is fast-tracking a detailed feasibility study for establishing a city-wide green transport network.
  • Tilburg (The Netherlands) has adopted the UII city-business dialogue model as part of its sustainable planning process.
  • Philadelphia is taking forward lessons and private sector best practices to enhance the operational and environmental efficiency of its 6000-strong vehicle fleet.

Our work shows every city has its own issues and priorities but also many common factors too: all must meet rising expectations for acceptable standards of service provision for water, housing, transport, health, education, food supply, sanitation and energy. They must do this in the context of rapid population growth and urbanisation: by 2050, the world’s is likely to add another 3 billion city dwellers. This is an unprecedented demographic ‘mega-trend’ and we must face it alongside another one: the end of the resource abundance era and the beginning of resource scarcity, with uncertain supply security.

These points were driven home on April 7 when the WBCSD presented the UII final report simultaneously at the ICLEI Global Town Hall in Hannover, Germany and the UN Habitat’s World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia. In this over-arching final report we make numerous recommendations for city and business leaders, plus NGOs and professional associations too. For example, cities must engage with business much earlier in the strategy and planning development process or risk missing out on crucial and valuable input. Improved cross-departmental coordination is also required in this respect. Businesses must embrace new ways of working. This entails broad-based problem solving and freely sharing knowledge and expertise. They must also work constructively with non-conventional partners and other companies – even competitors.

Viewed from a global perspective, the way of working pioneered by UII presents an enormous ‘win-win’ opportunity to drive rapid transformation towards sustainable development. Cities will win by getting practical, cost-effective solutions to better realize their sustainability aspirations. Leading businesses will win by unlocking markets for the innovative products and services so essential to deliver this transformation, forming the foundation for a vibrant urban green economy. And citizens will benefit through improved services and quality of life. 

City leaders, organizations like ICLEI and the independent Assurance Group overseeing UII tell us the project has already made an important contribution to realising this global opportunity. The next step is to take what’s been learned and consider how to best we can scale it, as well as share it. Anyone interested in sustainable cities can read the individual city reports available on the UII website. Those interested in following our work can follow the WBCSD Sustainable Cities blog.

Matthew Lynch is project director of the Urban Infrastructure Initiative at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development based in Geneva. He has also worked as an adviser to an NGO in Afghanistan, with an intergovernmental environment organization for South Asia (SACEP) headquartered in Colombo, and for the London based NGO Engineers Against Poverty. He has a Masters Degree in Environmental Technology majoring in Environmental Economics and Policy from Imperial College, London, and a Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business from the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership.


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