Rio+20 puts the case for more sustainable cities – is Australia ready?

We know where to head next to build more sustainable cities. Anders Hoff

Over the weekend, local leaders from around the world gathered together in Belo Horizonte, an hour’s flight from Rio de Janeiro at the ICLEI World Congress. The aim was to galvanise their case for a decade of sustainable urbanisation to take to Rio +20.

Over the last 20 years, our cities have grown significantly, bringing all the consequent demands on infrastructure, services and our environment. We have also gone through major changes in how we manage cities, including service delivery of utilities, local government reform and planning powers.

In a message to Rio + 20, local leaders are calling for governments to support all opportunities to drive the transition towards an inclusive green urban economy.

Are Australian cities ready to become more sustainable?

The 2012 national state of Australian cities report gives a mixed report card. The recent Cities COAG Reform Council Report encourages intergovernmental cooperation. The regional plans of the 55 Regional Australia Committees highlight some of the regional sustainable development issues, particularly in “regions in transition”. These include the need for transport, community facilities and “green growth” opportunities for regional communities.

There have been major achievements for cities in the context of sustainability and climate change. We can see this in investment in rail, renewable and energy efficiency and strategic planning for all capital cities. Leading industry has embraced green buildings to the extent that it is now a marketing edge: people increasingly see them as decent places to live and work.

Five key challenges remain:

  1. Managing urban growth more effectively. As pressures for development continue, urban growth boundaries are being progressively relaxed around our capital cities. We are now heading down a path of further urban sprawl. This is not sustainable in any sense. Recent extreme weather events including flood and fire have further heightened community awareness for more effective land-use planning that minimise risk to communities.

  2. Investment in smart infrastructure. Cities particularly need an integrated approach to public transport that supports fast and reliable transit within and between urban centres. This should include a very fast train along the eastern seaboard.

  3. Innovation in sustainable built environments. Cities must support better urban design, quality open space, green precincts with innovation and research in planning, building and construction.

  4. Creating healthier cities. Planning should support the initiatives of programs such as the Australian Heart Foundation active living program. Urban environments should be better designed to facilitate health and well-being.

  5. Sustainable cities and regions. When we think about urban growth, we have to think about the regions as well as the cities. Solutions to managing urban growth may involve regional development opportunities that can also alleviate pressure on our capital cities.

Better institutions for a more sustainable future

Rio + 20 is calling for institutional reform for sustainable development. This is not about more government, but more effective government for a highly urbanised nation. In Australia we need more effective mechanisms for responding to the challenges outlined beyond the next election.

All Australian parties have previously agreed to one initiative: setting up an Australian Sustainability Commission. Recommendations 1, 2 and 3 of the 2005 Sustainable Cities report included an Australian Sustainability Charter, sustainability targets and an Australian Sustainability Commission.

There are potentially four key elements for an Australian Sustainable Development Commission:

  1. Facilitation - joining the dots in our cities and regions to facilitate a more integrated approach including bringing different perspectives to the table for better decisions. A shared understanding and commitment to urban and regional futures provides a more certain investment environment for all sectors.

  2. Long term monitoring - tracking progress of implementing sustainable development, and keeping on top of and providing the necessary data for policy makers and communities.

  3. Advice – giving government, industry and parliament independent advice on possible ways forward, using experience they’ve gained from their global and local networks.

  4. Education - an on-going national portal for leading practice on sustainable development and research in partnership with universities and industry.

Recent climate change discussions have shown that engagement with industry and the wider community is even more important during times of risk and uncertainty. The above model could readily embrace both aspects.

Rio is pointing the way to better cities

The aspirations of Rio +20 provide the opportunity for better cities. A non-sustainable future is not an option. We want long-term transformation, and institutional reform that better joins parties together, supported by investment in education and research in sustainable cities to underpin our skills, could provide the platform we need. Co-production of knowledge, and synthesis of integrated approaches to urban and regional futures is critical.

These institutional innovations are what are required to effectively implement the objectives of Rio +20.

Some will say Rio + 20 is just more talkfest. Maybe … but that’s up to us. One thing I am sure of: as our cities expand and regions develop, local communities will be demanding action by our political leaders. We can deliver more of the same or we can build upon the recent step changes and provide the foundation for a very sustainable future for Australia and its economic place within the region.

We have a good story to tell but with some strategic investment and collaboration, it could be very much more.