Achieving the Cities We Want: Planning Tools for Urban Sustainability

Photo by UN Photo/Kibae Park. Busan, Republic of Korea.

By Rosaly Byrd

As the world continues to experience rapid urbanization, cities and metropolitan regions are faced with the challenge of how to best plan and organize these areas. Cities account for 80 percent of global energy consumption, releasing greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to climate change. Unplanned urban sprawl can result in increased pressure on ecosystems and natural resources, as well as disadvantaged settlements with no access to basic services. Much urbanization is taking place in slum conditions, with slum dwellers estimated to reach 1.6 billion people globally by 2030. Meanwhile, the world is increasingly looking towards cities for solutions and pathways towards sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) emphasizes the importance of local governments, the level of governance closest to the people, in achieving the SDGs- not only SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), but all the 17 SDGs in general.

It is in this context that local policymakers are realizing the importance of sustainable planning and management. Urban planners are having to construct and design in a way that tackles the complexities of cities and balances economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits. Sophisticated planning tools and processes are necessary to tackle these complexities and produce integrated master plans. Many actors are now developing these types of tools and resources to help with measuring, monitoring and supporting sustainable urban development. Cities themselves as well as city coalitions, think tanks, universities, private firms, NGOs and multilaterals are all involved in producing such tools.

As such, the RIO+ Centre has mapped a range of existing tools and initiatives that aim to support integrated sustainable development planning at the municipal level. In Planning Tools for Urban Sustainability: Mapping of Initiatives and Methodologies, over 50 tools used around the world are catalogued and reviewed in order to learn of the different approaches and how they guide urban development. Although far from an exhaustive review of such resources, the study highlights some of the types of approaches and tools that exist, from urban measurement indices, certifications and forecasting tools, to participatory planning guides and accountability tools. By assessing these tools, Planning Tools for Urban Sustainability examines what can be learned in terms of methodologies for urban sustainable development planning and to what degree they help to connect government and stakeholder groups.

The study identifies the characteristics of the tools and the dimensions that they monitor, comparing and identifying their strengths and weaknesses. For example, how well is inequality addressed? Resource efficiency? How engaged is the public in the functioning of the tool? Questions such as these must be acknowledged to ensure integrated planning. In this way, we can understand the approaches that exist to date and identify gaps and areas for new advances, thus informing policy and practice related to sustainable urban development. The RIO+ Centre will release Planning Tools for Urban Sustainability at the IV World Forum for Local Economic Development (FMDEL) in Cape Verde on 17 July 2017.

Tools that seek to improve information and processes for decision making at the urban and subnational level can be useful in contributing towards a more balanced approach to sustainable development. Urbanization provides an unparalleled opportunity to transform development towards more sustainable, equitable, and resilient pathways. Effective planning tools and resources can help us not miss this opportunity and achieve the cities- and world- we want.