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No city is an island

No city can ever be truly sustainable on its own, an international study has said. The quest to be so may even hinder global progress on sustainability.

The sustainable city, an idea first coined in the 1980s, has caught the imagination of urban planners, with cities such as Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, and Curitiba in Brazil setting themselves ambitious green goals under its banner.

Such an ideal may make a city more self-sufficient in discrete areas such as energy generation or waste disposal, says the new report Urbanisation, Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services: Challenges and Opportunities. But it suffers from a localism that ignores the fact that today’s cities are dependent in myriad ways on resources around the world.

“A lot of cities, mayors and municipalities have started to use the ideas of urban resilience and sustainability linked to locations,” Prof Thomas Elmqvist, a natural resource management specialist at Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden and editor of the report, told Future Earth.

“But the academic community has started to say these are not concepts linked to location but to systems – open systems with a myriad of flows of resources, waste, capital, of knowledge and so forth. The links can be very obscure, the feedback mechanisms not direct.”

“Although cities can optimise their resource use, increase their efficiency, and minimise waste, they can never be fully self-sufficient,” Michail Fragkias, an applied economist at Boise State University in the United States writes in the report.

The “narrow definition and application” of sustainability “can also result in unintended consequences such as the ‘lock-in’ of undesirable urban development trajectories.”

Elmqvist says that it is difficult to simulate these multiple, long distance  ‘teleconnections’, though new models are now emerging, and the concept of Natural Capital, which puts an economic value on nature’s services, is a promising tool. Another, more immediate way of exposing and tackling these long-distance processes would be for greater collaboration across global systems of cities to produce sustainable resource chains.

The report was commissioned by the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity and is the first to provide an international examination of urbanisation through the lens of the ecosystems that they both influence and depend on. Its 104 authors say they are bridging two fields of study – urbanisation, on the one hand, and biodiversity and ecosystems on the other – that have traditionally, and at great cost, left each other alone.

“Looking back, we have had a lot of rural research, a lot of urban research – still we are struggling with trying to connect the two,” says Elmqvist. Sound ecological science can no longer ignore the effects of cities on global ecological change – and it is not possible to understand cities without a full grasp of their ecological foundations, says the document.

The report urges us to “reconnect cities to the biosphere” – a revolution in approach that would acknowledge that cities, now the dominant human environment, must be regarded as part of the biosphere rather than standing aloof from it.

This approach puts ecosystems at the heart of urban scholarship and planning and of equal importance to built infrastructure. But it also liberates planners to reinvent ecosystems to serve human purposes, rather than regarding them as targets for conservation.

“We must view the ecosystems of cities as something that is being created and designed by humans for humans, not something whose sole purpose is to be conserved,” says Elmqvist.

We have to think of “how humans could design and manage ecosystems in a way that is more beneficial”.

The report is wide-ranging, with data and case studies from around the world, and Elmqvist says that the two-year experience of putting it together has been, far from depressing, a revelation about the opportunities academics have to help mould urbanisation.

“There are so many exciting experiments and projects going on throughout the world but we need the academic community to engage,” he says, highlighting academic involvement in ICLEI (local governments for sustainability) and URBIS (the Urban Biosphere Initiative), as well as input into a proposed Sustainable Development Goal relating to urbanisation.