Building a Sustainable City

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The International Union of Architects World Congress 2014 is just days away from opening in my home city of Durban and it has got me thinking about cities and urban development. Cities contribute some 80% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – according to World Bank figures – and estimates about population growth in cities across the world are staggering.  More than 60% of projected urban areas in 2030 are yet to be built. The world’s urban population is estimated to almost double to 6.3 billion by 2050. And as we consume 30% more renewable resources every year than the planet can replenish, it is clear that we need to change our approach to new city development.

South African cities, such as Durban, have per capita GHG values equivalent to cities in China and the US and are far higher than cities in Europe. This is because of South Africa’s dependence on fossil fuels for energy provision. Water availability is increasingly a major concern and socio-economic development a priority as over 41% of our urban South African population lives below the poverty line, higher than on any other continent.1 And we know that Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Cities do, however, present the greatest opportunity for progressive action to enable residents to reduce their CO2 emissions. Cities have authority over sectors such as water, waste and transport, and they can introduce policies and financial incentives focused on addressing climate change. As city governments also deliver routine services, they also have direct relationships with people living in cities.

So what is the solution? We need settlements which show what our communities and daily lives would be like if we lived sustainably. We need to become more resource efficient in countries where consumption is above the one planet level – Bioregional is currently working with a number of local regions to achieve this in the UK including Sutton, Bicester and Brighton & Hove.

We also need to enable countries where citizens do not have enough to develop and grow in a sustainable way. We know it can be done; for instance Maboneng Precinct, in downtown Johannesburg, is a privately developed urban neighbourhood renewal project and a great example of turning the ‘undesirable’ back into ‘desirable’. In Durban BioRegional has worked with land developer Tongaat Hulett Developments to apply the One Planet principles to the proposed Sibaya Precinct development. Also in Durban a successful spin off has been working with Partner Farmers in Waterloo township on a food growing project to support local food growing initiatives.  Hopefully big things start small. And there are many good One Planet Communities elsewhere in the world which show how people can live happy, healthy lives within the natural limits of the planet.

To me it’s obvious new developments should be places where it is easy for residents to adopt sustainable lifestyle choices. Understanding social and economic factors, and investment trends, is needed to ensure we are designing not for today but for tomorrow. Municipalities and developers can enable this, through energy efficient buildings, renewable energy, resource efficient infrastructure and proximity to employment and services. One Brighton is a shining example of what can be achieved – located next to Brighton rail station, the city centre eco-development has achieved a 67% reduction in operational emissions compared to the UK’s existing housing stock.

In an amazing turn of events, a recent study by US organisation Politifact indicates that in the US there are now more people working in solar energy than there are coal miners. A mind-blowing piece of information, especially considering that South Africa has been earmarked as the world’s most attractive emerging market for solar power.  The reality is that we can create sustainable jobs and bring South Africa a more diversified and sustainable energy mix – that would be a win-win situation in terms of sustainable development.

And we have a framework that ticks all of the sustainability needs mentioned above – our very own One Planet Living framework. Let’s keep working with our local authorities and municipalities to apply our ten principles to sustainable urban development.


World Bank 2011. Representative GHG baselines for Cities and their respective countries [online]. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTUWM/Resources/GHG_Index_Mar_9_2011.pdf.

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