Building Sustainable Cities for the Future

In just a few hours, the UN is hosting an online panel to discuss its recent report, World Economic and Social Survey 2013: Sustainable Development Challenges. The panel will discuss issues arising from its research on building sustainable cities, food security and energy transformation. Below I provide an overview of the major findings and some sociological resources that speak to the theme of green planning.

Projected population by region. Image: UN WESS, 2013
Projected population by region. Image: UN WESS, 2013

Sustainability & Population Growth

Right now, the world population’s has surpassed 7 billion. By 2050, the UN estimates that the Earth will be home to another 2.3 billion people. The UN report finds that by 2050, 6.25 billion people will be living in cities with the highest migrations occurring in developing regions.

If sustainable planning practises are not adopted at an international level, the number of people living in urban slums will triple over the next 40 years, from 1 billion people to 3 billion. This means that numerous cities will lack the basic infrastructure to house its citizens, including clean water, basic sanitation, reliable electricity, and access to health care and education.

Urban rural pop growth. Image: UN WESS 2013. Click to enlarge
Urban rural pop growth. Image: UN WESS 2013. Click to enlarge

Food Security & Consumption

Moreover, our global population increase will mean that the world will need to produce 70% more food than it does at present. Agricultural production needs, especially livestock and dairy products, will create new resource challenges on land, water and biodiversity.

The needs of the working poor and small businesses around the world will continue to rise as new economic demands evolve. This will mean devising new energy supplies that are both reliable and sustainable. With this will come a catastrophic rise in carbon emissions, which will exceed the safety mark (450 parts per million of carbon dioxide). The UN recommends that the international community agree to reduce its consumption of risky energy production methods such as nuclear and carbon.

By 2030, 2.4 billion will require solid fuels for cooking in comparison to the present day. This is a rise of 300 million people in less than two decades. An investment in clean fuels, especially to support daily needs such as cooking needs to be a partnership between the public and private sectors. The UN report argues:

The world needs a public investment-led big push, capable of catalysing private sector investment and innovation so as to sustainably transform the energy system.

The major hurdles the world faces is that we have an international model that we did not all agree to – one set by industries who are concerned only with their company profits. This does not need to be the reality in the future.

Co2 ommissions. Image: WESS 2013. Click to enlarge
Co2 ommissions. Image: WESS 2013. Click to enlarge


The understanding of environmental risk varies in different regions due to the personal connection people feel towards the future. In some places, the risk seems to be something that affects far away places or it seen as a matter too large to tackle in the case of climate change. In other regions, the risk is immediate and local. In different places around the world, Australia included, governments quibble over carbon taxing, which is an issue that also seems far removed from the reality of everyday citizens.

Other issues which might seem low risk to people in advanced nations are the issues faced by people in developing nations. For example, the provision of safe drinking water, sanitation, solid waste removal and reliable energy supply. These might seem like national issues that other governments should deal with, however, these issues will soon touch a greater proportion of the world.

The green solutions to these problems are already available and provide immediate local benefits. The issue is in creating partnerships between the innovators and infrastructure suppliers in developing nations. This disconnect can be readily resolved if the international community agrees that the diffusion of sustainable planning skills is in everybody’s best interests. Given the upcoming population flows, innovation in developing nations does indeed affect the entire world.

High risk issues that have been emerging amongst developing nations regard land use, public urban transport, family planning and long-term water supply solutions. Again, while these problems might be more evident in certain localities, these issues are, in fact, putting pressure on resources all over the world. Part of the solution is agreeing to international policies on green planning. Another is to support developing nations to build low-carbon energy infrastructure that will also support their economic growth.

Benefits green growth. Image: UN WESS 2013. Click to enlarge
Benefits green growth. Image: UN WESS 2013. Click to enlarge

International Investment

Drawing on work by the OECD, the UN identifies that one of the main obstacles to enacting sustainable urban planning is the poor collaboration between national policy makers and international institutions. This is an applied sociology matter, given our work with different levels of government, not for profit groups and local communities. As the UN sees it, one way to head off future problems is for developing nations to go against the established trend by developed nations. Instead of encouraging open access on their natural resources, developing nations might invest their Research & Development funds on low-carbon infrastructures.

Green initiatives are more easily adopted by households and small businesses when government policies, industry regulations, and innovation strategies provide cost-effective access. These pricing structures do not need to be set by the fossil industry; international collaboration can work towards making clean energy affordable.

The UN is urging governments, industry, researchers and ordinary people to see sustainable planning as an investment that will have immediate effects on their local neighbourhoods, as well as on the future of our planet. Currently, this future looks bleak – and not in some distant apocalyptic time span that we don’t have to worry about. Instead, it will happen within our lifetime. We can either live to see green energy solutions make our lives easier, or we can watch an urban sprawl negatively impact our lives.

Energy post 2015 vision: UN WESS 2013. Click to enlarge
Energy post 2015 vision: UN WESS 2013. Click to enlarge

How Sociologists Can Get Involved

You can read an overview of the UN report in five languages free online and RSVP to the free online discussion on the UN’s Development Facebook page. The event begins Thursday, 25 July 2013 at 9:00 AM EDT (11:00 PM Australian EST and 1:00 PM UTC/ GMT).

Below are some resources you might follow up on to see how sociologists are contributing to sustainable planning. If you’re are an applied sociologist working in this area, please tell us about your work in the comments below. If you are able to join in the UN’s online panel discussion, let us know your sociological thoughts in the comments!


Listen to Alan Reid, Editor of Environmental Education Research, talk about the challenges of studying the concept of resilience. He also discusses the opportunities this concept presents for sustainable planning when it is studied as an international and interdisciplinary phenomenon. Reid also notes that sustainability is difficult to teach as students and educators understand this idea differently. He notes progress is difficult to measure especially amongst different generations. He advocates for a place-based and spatial understanding of environmentalism that links in with local experiences and knowledge.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation filmed a series of talks linked to its edited book, Cities, Cultural Policy and Governance. The book covers issues from around the world. Below is Australian sociologist Gay Hawkins, who has published on water and cultural understandings of waste management. She launches the book and gives an overview of how urban conglomerations have influenced consumption of global goods.


One Comment on “Building Sustainable Cities for the Future

  1. Pingback: Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos – Building Sustainable Cities For The Future

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