Building green and inclusive cities

Cities all around the world are implementing ambitious mitigation and adaptation strategies to respond to climate change: from urban greenery to renewable energy systems to low carbon mobility. The ecological crisis, however, is not the only challenge urban areas are faced with. Poverty, immigration, exclusion, racism, sexism, homelessness and other social justice issues, are equally pressing challenges in cities around the world. 

This is where it gets complicated. The mainstream policy approach has been to address social justice separately from ecological crises with one set of policies targeting the climate crisis and another addressing social issues. But these crises are deeply interconnected and this siloed policy approach is problematic. 

Evidence shows that a large number of urban development projects focused on environmental sustainability not only offered few social benefits, they even exacerbated exclusion. This process has been defined as green or ecological gentrification. Climate change will hit poor and vulnerable communities the hardest and they should also see the benefits of sustainability initiatives. If these disparities are not considered, and vulnerable communities do not see how a green transition will benefit them, we will not achieve a sustainable urban future. Green initiatives therefore need to consider the lives and needs of all citizens, in an effort to leave no one behind in the transition towards a more sustainable society. 

Through the UrbanA project a team of experts is working together to model how the multiple ecological crises and social exclusion can be addressed through an integrated policy approach that aims to create both just and sustainable cities. Within Europe, there have been a considerable number of past projects and initiatives which focused on both the social and environmental dimensions of urban development and transition, but this knowledge has remained fragmented and, at times, inaccessible. UrbanA’s aim is to collect this spread and scattered knowledge and translate it into action. The four translocal Urban Arenas are an essential part of this process. The Arenas are 2-days events taking place in four European cities: Rotterdam, Barcelona, Berlin and Brussels. Within this space, UrbanA brings together its Community of Practice (CoP), a diverse group of passionate city-makers from all backgrounds: urban planners, activists, policy makers, researchers, practitioners and more. In these occasions the diverse UrbanA community discusses, debates and co-produces knowledge on urban justice and sustainability. 

This co-creative effort led to a wealth of knowledge, mainly collected in the Wiki on Sustainable Just Cities, an open source platform that serves as a knowledge commons. Anyone can contribute to it or consult it, and no single person owns it. The Wiki’s aim is not to produce new contents or theories on how to build sustainable just cities – quite the opposite. It democratically compiles and synthesizes existing knowledge in order to make it accessible to city-makers. Currently, the UrbanA Wiki features three key elements:

But what are some practical suggestions on how to actually create more sustainable and just cities? 

Here a few examples of what UrbanA is working on. Nature-based solutions for equity and community gardens are two approaches which aim to reduce Co2 emissions and promote biodiversity in urban spaces. At the same time, they have benefits for health, socialization and inclusion of different actors, including residents of different age, gender, social groups and ethnicity. By developing urban green initiatives like nature-based solutions and community gardens with a participatory approach which included different perspectives and voices, risks of injustices such as limited access to green infrastructure or citizens exclusion in urban planning are drastically reduced. These are only a few examples, but show that there is already a lot of knowledge out there, and it doesn’t only belong to architects or municipalities, but also residents, social movements and entrepreneurs.  

Are you interested in getting involved with the UrbanA Community of Practice?

Anyone with an interest in sustainable and just cities can join the UrbanA Community of Practice. You don’t have to be an expert in anything, you might just want to learn. You are welcome to join, because we are learning too. If you feel like interacting, you can join one of the UrbanA online Community Conversations or discussions on the dedicated UrbanA platform on Communities for Future. If you are more of quiter listener you can delve into UrbanA’s podcasts with interviews from city-makers across Europe or YouTube videos with recorded expert presentations. The Wiki on Sustainable Just Cities, is for everyone to edit, if you have interesting initiatives you would like to share with the world, just follow these simple steps on how to create an account and start editing the Wiki! You can follow UrbanA on social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook) and subscribe to the newsletter to stay updated with all there is going on.

This article is adapted from one originally published in SMART CITIES PT.

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