Making a sustainable city: a guide to urban planning, management and rehabilitation

The United Nation's new framework aims to provide practical tips to urban areas, no matter their size.

Just what is a sustainable city, exactly?

The United Nations Global Compact, which runs a program focused on creating of sustainable cities, has published a framework of management principles for urban planners and municipal managers that includes case studies for issues such as water management and slum rehabilitation. There's a whole lot more than that in the roughly 137-page PDF, but those are two of the most profound problems that are addressed.

The Global Compact Cities Program (or Programme, if prefer) currently works with 40 cities around the world. There are actually 13 really active programs with which the group is engaged actively. The publication means that other local governments can read about and benefit from their pilots and innovation.  A list of the participants shows widespread diversity in who is involved. From a U.S. standpoint, there are two major participants in the active project work. They are San Francisco, which is running the Business Council for Climate Change, and Milwaukee, which has a major project going to improve water quality.

In the section that describes the project in Wisconsin, the city reveals that it had more than 120 different agencies, organizations, businesses and whatevers trying to work on water quality initiatives in the city. The efforts of these fragmented projects were obviously diluted. Now, the city runs a unified Milwaukee Water Council, which includes businesses, universities, investment firms and other interest parties from the region. Their overall aim is to help build citizen awareness of water issues, which will then flow into technology investments, and a better policy and management program.

The San Francisco initiative, the Business Council on Climate Change, pulls together about 100 companies who have subscribed to the city's pledge to address greenhouse gas emissions in the commercial and residential sectors. It's a non-profit group primarily focused on giving companies that practical tools they need to becomes trailblazers against this pledge.

But back to the guide, called "Sustainable Cities: Volume 1." One of the first things stated in the executive summary is that this is not just a guide for sprawling urban areas There are also a number of levels at which a city can participate in the program: Signatory (meaning you give a thumbs-up to the principles), Reporting (which means you're contributing information to some piece of the program) and Innovating (which means your local government is in the advance guard of new ideas).

The big "aha" for me in the guide is the emphasis put on public-private partnerships. Here's some perspective from the guide:

From a government perspective, the Cities Programme affords an opportunity to create focused dialogue with other sectors that may better inform public policy and local governance on a day-to-day basis. For the private sector it provides an opportunity for companies to engage with other sectors within the communities in which they operate, and to demonstrate a meaningful and tangible commitment to investing in sustainable development at ‘grass roots.’ It gives civil society organizations the platform to engage directly with political decision- makers, business and opinion-leaders in informing and influencing the policy agenda, in addition to development of practical action on social, environmental and economic issues affecting the city."

In short, no matter how well-meaning our various pet projects are, we need to stop working in a vacuum if we're going to make meaningful progress. Surprised? No. There actually was a meeting of some of the U.S. cities involved in the program on May 10, including Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, New Orleans and San Francisco. I'll keep my eyes open for notes out of that meeting.

Image: Geof Wilson/Flickr

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