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  • Sofia Greaves

On UN Urban Agenda & Daring Cities

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

'Cities can be leaders in building a culture of sustainability. But this is futile if the economic model does not change. The world is not a Garden City'



This week I decided that I want to be an urban planner. This month it is ‘Urban October’, and the Daring Cities 2020 event discussed the current proposals made to guide urban development towards sustainability. Here are thoughts on this event plus comments from my doctoral research on ancient cities and the nineteenth century, which covers how nineteenth-century governments planned and managed cities for good public health.

Cities today are faced with a set of major problems: population migration, insufficient housing, bad air quality, diminishing biodiversity and poverty. The urban population affects the planet disproportionately, occupying 2% global land, but using 60% of energy and producing 70% of global waste. Increasingly, cities are vulnerable to the effects of this consumption – as the Venice MOSE barrier has recently demonstrated. This would all seem to characterize the city as an evil entity doomed to fall – but the importance of cities, as listed clearly and simply by the new Mayor’s Agenda for a green, post-Covid recovery (C40), means that they are an indisputable part of our future.[1] We need cities. Urban density can actually be a greener way to live. To make this a reality, the UN Urban Agenda (2016), lays out a guide for urban renewal towards sustainable development goals.[2] Of the sustainable development goals, Goal 11 is directly applicable to cities, which must be 'inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.'[3] These objectives are not legally binding, but the aim is to realise them by 2030, to meet the ‘2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’., by which time it is estimated that 6/10 people will live in urban environments.[4]

Nature will play a key role in achieving the SDGs. As Susanne Nolden has just raised, these urban problems and objectives are dependent upon the biophysical world. We need to understand cities as part of an interconnected ecological network because the decisions we make in urban environments impact and depend upon ecosystems 10,000s of miles away.[5] Thus, nature and cities, town and countryside, are placed in a false duality. Forests, for example, are essential to urban water supply, which is critical to health and hygiene. This is true of food supply, water, waste, air and energy. They are instead dependent upon one another – as ‘Urban Political Ecology’ approaches argue. Understanding and harnessing this partnership by investing in natural resources and strategies is key to the resilience of our cities in the future.[6] This point was made by Martina Otto - head of cities and life-styles at UN Environment Programme who summarised that, ‘resilience’, is actually a characteristic of cities, which ‘have a track history of reinventing themselves and Building Back Better’. [7] Indeed, such cycles of adaptability have been studied by archaeologists, for whom resilience theory has provided a lens to understand ‘the source and role of change, particularly kinds of change, that are transforming - in systems that are adaptive’.[8]

The nineteenth-century ‘urban agenda’ was put forwards by studying the cities of the past. Planners analysed the cities which flourished, identified points of decline and degeneration, and made a case for why societies collapsed. Using their analysis, which was not without its problems and political aims, they brought about change. Planners aimed to change long-standing cultural practices like water provision and going to church - the latter, they argued (as in present day), spread disease with horrific practices like kissing relics, confessional grates and pews.[9] As we are told today, changes are typically more successful because of ‘the Five A’s’: availability accessibility, affordability, attractiveness and awareness.[10] In the nineteenth century, the 5 As did not exist. Consequently, the radical transformation of Western urban centres like Barcelona, Paris, London and Naples was realised through the study of Greece and Rome, which provided a conservative and practical point of reference. Barcelona and the now famous Eixample grid extension is one example.


The city of Barcelona. (1858). Old city shown in dark, with 'Eixample' Expansion plan beyond.

The planner for Barcelona, Ildefonso Cerdà, made a strong case that a city with walls (like Barcelona), was doomed to suffer over-crowding, disease and decay. It was therefore doomed to fail. He calculated that the ancient Athenian wall circuits compressed Athenians into a population density of 416 people per hectare – half that of contemporary Barcelona, but hardly a model.[11] Cerdà even calculated rental costs, exclaiming that a flat which would cost 4000 pesetas in Barcelona would have cost an ancient Greek five times this amount.[12] These comparisons were a consequence of his classical education - the forces managing nineteenth-century planning mostly pertained to an elite class. It was also a consequence of the problems in question: for some, Greece and Rome appeared to have managed the same set of practical challenges faced by the contemporary world, with clean water systems, drainage and ventilation. In these regards, the Romans emerged superior, for their infrastructural prowess.[13] Thus if today, cities must be ‘inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’, in the nineteenth-century, urban ideals and objectives included ‘clean’, ‘civilised’ and ‘Roman’, which were all concepts defined in relation to one another.[14]

Our ‘Rome’ is the nineteenth century.

Our observations of the past are also strengthening the case for radical imaginaries.[17] We're trying to take Ebenezer Howard's ‘Garden City’ as a model. Indeed nineteenth century cities are being put forwards as evidence that necessary but disruptive goals can be achieved with radical action. Howard's era planned, like us, with health and wellbeing as objectives.[16] At Daring Cities 2020 Howard was raised again; his ideas put green + city together. Brilliant - but it won't work. Yes, Ebenezer Howards’ Garden City proposed more green space.[20] But it was also linked to a bigger picture: Capitalist industrialism and a social engineering project which aimed at the eradication of ‘immoral activities’ (like alcohol). This was all justified by the cultural authority of the classical past and the pursuit of ‘health’.[21] Today, even if initiatives to use green space in urban development like Jayne Miller and ‘World Urban Parks’ actively pursue social equity and promote mental health, taking the Garden City model will end in the collapse of our society.

Ebenezer Howard's Garden City model, from Tomorrow! A peaceful path to real reform (1898), from Tizot (2018)


Today’s ideal that cities need to be in harmony with nature and sustainable is not radical enough. It relies upon an economic model of industrial growth like Howards’ – one of continual growth and multiplication. SDG Goal 8 calls for 7% annual GDP growth. How does this work with the idea of sustainable cities? Jason Hickel has made such a criticism. Over-consumption is the problem. If consumption perpetually grows, are we to colonise the earth? This is not sustainable. This was the way nineteenth-century planners thought; the garden city was meant to multiply. Cerdà began hi proposal, ‘Ruralise the urban, urbanize the rural…replete terram (fill the world)’.

Sustainable cities need a different economic system. Or at least a different value system. All the number of green schemes which tackle climate change and promote public engagement with the natural world are futile ‘mitigation’ if either remains unchanged.[23] We are not using the potential of the city properly. Cities, at the recent UN anniversary, have been identified for their potential as leaders in building a culture of sustainability. They are places for education, decision making and public engagement initiatives like Bohn Blooms and Melbourne’s Interactive Forest Map, In the latter, urban trees were given emails and inhabitants recorded their health status, but actually, mostly sent them love letters.[24] Establishing and nurturing such partnerships between people, cities and nature is essential. The Edinburgh Declaration (2020) is the latest initiative to promote biological diversity worldwide. Cities with Nature also provides an online platform of resources which asks for commitment from cities, their partners, individuals and researchers to reconnect urban communities with nature. Green roofs, indigenous trees: these are all cheap ways of embedding nature to create ‘nature-focused urban planning, or a biophilic city’. Yes – we can make changes which shape our behaviour positively towards more sustainable choices.[25] Planners pursue the ‘Smart City’ paradigm to do just this. [26] But if GDP ‘the profit principle’, continues to be the way we measure urban success and progress, then excess will not be curbed. Nature, and our cities are doomed to fail.

This is an opportune moment for ambitious reform in which nature will help cities to adapt and become more resilient. The nineteenth century teaches us that change is possible, but only if we reject nineteenth-century ideas about urbanism. The world is not a Garden City. As summarised yesterday by David Attenborough, “Ordinary people are beginning to realise that greed does not actually lead to joy”. The world is an ecosystem. If you help the natural world it becomes a better place for everybody.

[1] C40 is the new, mayor’s agenda for a green recovery after Covid-19. You can join C40 and access information on strategies for urban improvement. https://www.c40knowledgehub.org/s/topiccatalog [2] For the https://www.rtpi.org.uk/research/2020/june/plan-the-world-we-need/#_Toc44077177 [3] See UN “SDG Cities. Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)”: https://unhabitat.org/sites/default/files/2020/01/fp5-sdg_cities_v261119.pdf. [4] Boris Johnson has pledged that the UK will be wind powered by 2030. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/oct/06/powering-all-uk-homes-via-offshore-wind-by-2030-would-cost-50bn [5] For urban ecological networks, https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-10-4113-6_12; for the global report on urban health: https://apps.who.int/iris/rest/bitstreams/909311/retrieve [6] For a good introductory video to Political Ecology, see https://www.politicalecology.eu/component/zoo/item/maria-kaika?Itemid=101. For political ecology, Tzaninis, Y., Mandler, T., Kaika, M., and Keil, R. “Moving Urban political ecology beyond the ‘urbanization of nature’, Process in Human Geography (2020): 1-24. Available online: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0309132520903350 [7] For Build Back Better, https://www.un.org/en/un-coronavirus-communications-team/un-urges-countries-%E2%80%98build-back-better%E2%80%99 [8] Redman, Charles L. “Resilience Theory in Archaeology,” American Anthropologist, 107, 1 (2005): 70-77. [9] Luigi Pagliani’s student Francesco Abba produced a study which was an international success: 34 samples of holy water presented at the first national congress for hygiene in Turin (1898). Abba, F. «sulle pessime condizioni batteriologiche dell’acque benedetta nelle chiese e sulla presenza in essa del bacillo tubercolare,” Rivista d’igiene e di sanità pubblica, X (1899): 879 – 889 [10] For examples of problems and unsuccessful initiatives, P. Stieninger Hurtado, “From Sustainable Cities to Sustainable People – Changing Behaviour Towards Sustainability with the Five A Planning Approach”, in Urban Breezes (Springer, 2018): 419-434. Available online: https://www.urbanbreezes.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/453458_1_En_24_Chapter_OnlinePDF.pdf [11] Athens had been under Catalan control after it was conquered by the Catalan Company in the Medieval period, 1311-1388. [12] Here Cerdà applied the orator Lisias’ account that a house was worth three and a half talents (79,820 rs.), to argue that a year’s rent would cost a talent, (20,520 rs.). Cerdà, I. (1867) Teoría General de la Urbanización y aplicación de sus principios y doctrinas a la Reforma y Ensanche de Barcelona. Volumen I-III. (1968 ed.) Barcelona. [13] Malatesta, M. Professionisti e Gentiluomini. Storia delle professioni nell’Europa contemporanea (Turin, Einaudi, 2006); Penelope Davies has provided much useful evidence to dispel this myth that the Republican Roman city was a hygienic paradise. Davies, P. “Pollution, propriety and urbanism in Republican Rome,” in Bradley, M., and K. R. Stow (eds.) Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, disease and hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012): 67-80. [14] “Sustainable Development Goal 11 - Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”, 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. https://sdgs.un.org/goals/goal11 [15] See Harper, K. The Fate of Rome, Climate Disease and the End of an Empire. (Princeton University Press, 2017). [16] For United Nations Sustainable Development goals, see “Plan the world we need. The contribution of planning to a sustainable, resilient and inclusive recovery”, Royal Town Planning Institute, https://www.rtpi.org.uk/research/2020/june/plan-the-world-we-need/#_Toc44077177. [17] Bruno Moser, Theo Malzieu and Paula Petkova “Tactical Urbanism. Re-imagining our cities post-Covid-19”, 14 May 2020, https://www.fosterandpartners.com/plus/tactical-urbanism/; John Gapper, “The Enduring Attraction of Cities”, Financial Times, 29 September 2020; “The Great Disrupter”, The Economist, 19 September 2020. [18] “CIVITAS is a network of cities for cities dedicated to cleaner, better transport in Europe and beyond. Since it was launched by the European Commission in 2002, the CIVITAS Initiative has tested and implemented over 800 measures and urban transport solutions as part of demonstration projects in more than 80 Living Lab cities Europe-wide” See https://civitas.eu/about [19] Bruno Moser, Theo Malzieu and Paula Petkova “Tactical Urbanism. Re-imagining our cities post-Covid-19”, 14 May 2020, https://www.fosterandpartners.com/plus/tactical-urbanism/ [20] For this argument, Tizot, J-Y. “Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Idea and the Ideology of Industrialism,” Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 87 Printemps | 2018. Available online: http://journals.openedition.org/cve/3605 For the For a modern ‘garden city’, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/urban-expeditions/green-buildings/green-urban-landscape-cities-Singapore/ [21] For classical ideas in the Garden City, Alston, R. (2012) “Class cities: Classics, utopianism and urban planning in early twentieth-century Britain,” J. Hist. Geogr., 30, 1-10. Doi: 10.1016/j.jhg.2012.04.006; for Howard and industrialism, Tizot, J-Y. “Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Idea and the Ideology of Industrialism,” Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 87 Printemps | 2018. Available online: http://journals.openedition.org/cve/3605 For a modern ‘garden city’, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/urban-expeditions/green-buildings/green-urban-landscape-cities-Singapore/ [22] For land use and conflict, https://unhabitat.org/sites/default/files/2019/05/land-and-conflict-combined.compressed.pdf [23] Currently air conditioning and electric fan energy consumption is set to triple by 2050. Green roofs are now obligatory for surfaces over 200m squared. https://specifierreview.com/2018/06/26/green-roofs-improve-biodiversity/ [24] The UN have published a guide for forest and landscape conservation, https://www.wri.org/publication/restoration-monitoring-guide [25] Here Trieste’s E-Bikes and pedestrianization are a good example. See also discussion of substitutes on ‘dirty technologies’, “Free Exchange. Marching Bans’, The Economisst, October 3 2020. [26] Petra Hurtado, “Smart Cities – Behaviour Change towards Sustainability”. Online Article, 26 July 2016. https://smartcities-infosystem.eu/newsroom/blog/smart-cities-%E2%80%93-behavior-change-towards-sustainability

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