Toward a New Definition of Sustainability

Examining what it means to be a sustainable city

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“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That’s how the U.N. Commission on Environment and Development defined the term sustainable in 1987. But Chang Heng Chee—the ambassador-at-large with the Singapore Foreign Ministry—writes in a blog post that this definition is insufficient; the chasm between protecting the environment and promoting economic growth is too significant. So, what does it mean for a city to be sustainable?

Chee points to the Arcadis Sustainability Index, published by the World Economic Forum, to begin answering this question. Singapore, which was ranked second on this index, has shifted from a water deficient city-state to one that now labels water as an asset. This shift required educational campaigns that triggered public participation—including teaching children about the importance of water—as well as policy and pricing changes to nudge users to adjust their behaviors. These sectors of society combined contribute to what Chee considers modern-day sustainability.

Sustainability can also be driven by select public officials who dedicate efforts toward implementing more energy-efficient options. Jaime Lerner, the mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, implemented a transformative public transportation system. In Colombia, leaders have turned the cities of Bogota and Medellin into models of innovation and sustainability. Although the traditional definition of sustainability may fall short, Chee offers three ways cities can address the growing differences between economic opportunity and environmental protection, and become more sustainable: City planners and officials must want to drive change, and develop a plan to do so; there need to be institutional structures in place to coordinate and implement policies; and policy leaders should look to other cities and their policy leaders for support and inspiration.

By: Maya Miller, Scientific American


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