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Urban Planet: Knowledge towards Sustainable Cities

Have you ever envisioned a time when experts from different disciplines come together with the hope of mitigating emerging global climate risks? What if cities also played a key role in the process? What if I told you that there is new a book encompassing all this, and more?

Cities are complex organisms composed of interdependent systems—i.e. economies, cultures, biodiversity and infrastructure from public transportation to sewage systems—in constant change. Needless to say, within this complexity lie complex challenges. For instance, many key and emerging global climate risks are concentrated in urban areas, and yet urban centers are essential to global climate change adaptation (IPCC, 2014).

To this day, urban areas occupy less than two percent of the world’s land area—yet are responsible for over 50 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and produce about 80 percent of the world’s global domestic product (IPCC, 2015). Unsurprisingly, projections show that global urbanization will continue over the next decades.

By 2050, about 80 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas (Chavez et al. 2018), reaching a population growth rate of three to five percent per year in West Africa and Asia alone (UN, 2014). In this scenario, there will be a high demand of services, infrastructure food and other resources crucial to promote and sustain the healthy development of dwellers.

Indeed, the future is urban. But is global urbanization the solution to attain sustainability?   

So far, scientists are working hard to be heard by state leaders—who, without much of a choice, are beginning to pay attention. When the side effects of climate change begin to be irreversible, it is hard to ignore them. However, this is not enough.

Likewise, knowledge gaps between the global north and global south, along with the divide between scientists and practitioners, are still latent obstacles to conceive equitable representation in decision-making processes. Meanwhile, humankind is already navigating in a time of uncertainty. Will we be able to sustain a progressive narrative for our species? This is yet to be seen.

Since its emergence from some of Future Earth’s greatest legacy projects, the Urban Knowledge-Action-Network has been working collectively to further this work by building community and mobilizing science and research to support the implementation of global agendas and assessments such as the New Urban Agenda (NUA), Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Aichi Targets, IPCC Global Climate Change Research Agenda and AR6, in cities to improve local impact on a global scale. It is a global network convening a transdisciplinary research base, focused on the co-design, co-production and co-implementation of knowledge and tools to provide solutions to the sustainability challenges facing cities.

In April of 2018, members of this network released Urban Planet: Knowledge towards Sustainable Cities. The book that calls for a systems approach, a new knowledge generation agenda vis-à-vis the urgency to understand the sustainability challenges and options for a rapidly urbanizing future.

With over 120 contributors, the book brings together a wide range of expertise by urban stakeholders to demonstrate that the coproduction of knowledge is attainable. Some of these contributors gathered for the launch of the book, held in mid-June during ICLEI World Congress 2018 in Montreal, Canada. Among them was Thomas Elmqvist, Professor at Stockholm University, co-editor of the book and active member of the Urban Knowledge-Action-Network.

According to Elmqvist, Urban Planet was conceived because “there is a need to try to bring together different knowledge holders, and see also if we can develop a method where we can generate more integrated knowledge about the complexity of urbanization—which is an immensely complex system and it’s changing all the time, like a moving target.”

Watch the full interviews: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 >>

The book shares ideas not limited to thought leaders and academic scholars, as it includes the perspectives of other important, yet often unheard, stakeholders in urban development and transformation—such as journalists, artists, designers, architects, landscape architects, activists, youth, and urban practitioners from city governments and civil society.

Urban Planet is divided into four parts and, of the 52 chapters, 35 are written by non-academics, “bridging all these divides we have between disciplines and between policy and practice theory, and also between the Global South and the Global North,” said Elmqvist.

Debra Roberts, Head of eThekwini Municipality’s Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department and IPCC Co-Chair, also attended the book launch in Montreal. “This book is a real tool against the othering we see happening in the world where the ‘other’ needs to be rejected and removed from the debate,” she said.

Roberts is also an active member of the Urban Knowledge-Action-Network who contributed with a “provocation of practice,” which is a novel addition to an academic book. As a scientist based in South Africa who is also a practitioner, she challenges the notion that the boundaries of science, policy, and practice with no fixed institutional allegiances cannot be crossed.

Scientists and practitioners work in different spaces, she said, and don't often talk to one another. “[Urban Planet] provided a platform to open up that conversation.”

Importantly, dialogue can no longer be the only means to action.

“We need to move beyond just talking. We need a new breed of urban practitioner, who is capable of moving between the worlds. Being both fluent in practice, but also still capable of functioning reasonably in the scientific world,” Roberts said.

“It’s not only about putting a scientist and a practitioner and a policymaker into a room and having a discussion. We need to start actually having people who can move fluidly between those worlds,” she explained.

All in all, Urban Planet is not only a refreshing reality check, it features practical solutions already being implemented as well as a holistic understanding of current trends and issues in global urban sustainability. As Elmqvist puts it, “there’s something for everyone.” And since the book is open access, anyone with a good Internet bandwidth and knowledge of English should be able to get a hold of it. It’s a must have in and outside of academia.

Get your digital copy of Urban Planet for free here.