Panelists and organizers for “Nothing about us without us: How to engage young people in co-creating sustainability policies?” included (left to right) Olga Krajewska, ICLEI Europe; Fruzsina Vargha, Sfântu-Gheorghe, Romania; Chilando Chitangala, Lusaka, Zambia; Jose Nicolas Arenas, Envigado, Colombia; Vlora Makolli, Together in Association, Sweden; Anne Louise Meincke, Cities4Children Alliance, Denmark; and Coline Blache, ICLEI World Secretariat.
ICLEI has long recommended that cities take integrated climate action, tackling both mitigation – lowering greenhouse gas emissions to prevent future climate change – and adaptation – preparing to cope with the climate change of today – in a holistic way to realize the goal of sustainable development.
But we have also asked: Where do people come in? Counting a city’s carbon emissions is the first step to lowering them, and protecting property against damage from climate-fueled floods, storms, droughts, and fires is critical to a functioning economy. What about the citizens?
Putting people at the heart of integrated climate action was the primary point of discussion throughout the 2022 ICLEI World Congress, held in Malmö, Sweden, on 10-13 May.
City leaders, researchers, advocates, and subject matter experts came together to explore how cities could center justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in their climate policies, to create socio-economic opportunities, reduce poverty and inequality, and improve the health of people and nature – all with the participation of the citizens most impacted by the climate crisis.
One big takeaway from the World Congress: Doom and gloom doesn’t sell. Instead, focus on people-centered solutions.
“The focus should not be net zero,” said Dennis Pamlin, director of Mission Innovation’s Net-Zero Compatible Innovations Initiative. The focus should be flourishing citizens. The role of a city is to provide for its people.”
“We need to begin with community needs and priorities, end with community impact, recognize science as a human right, and make science available to disenfranchised communities,” said Kevin Noone, chair of the Advisory Board for Thriving Earth Exchange.
“The goal is not just to fight climate change, but to modernize everything,” said Bertrand Piccard, chairperson of the Solar Impulse Foundation. “Change the narrative to modernization, optimization, efficiency. It’s exciting, profitable, creates jobs, and brings everyone together.”
“Big ears, small mouth”
A second takeaway: Sustainable development requires everyone. “You can’t work with only one part – you must get all parts together,” said Nurgül Iljas Eminovska, head of social sustainability for the Malmö housing company MKB. “The key is to have big ears and a small mouth.”
Throughout the World Congress, city leaders from around the world discussed how they put “big ears, small mouth” into practice by facilitating community dialogues, encouraging participants to integrate different points of view in co-creating effective climate action.
Katja Dörner, Mayor of Bonn, Germany, explained how her city brought together key players from across civil society to create Bonn4Future after City Council passed a sustainability strategy, declared a climate emergency, and set a goal of carbon neutrality by 2035. “We made climate forums with people selected at random to get very different perspectives. This was accompanied by a huge campaign, launching a new website, to make the process known to everyone. We wanted to talk about these goals and share ideas with the whole community,” Dörner said.
Renán Barrera, Mayor of Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, discussed Mérida Decides, an initiative to co-create the municipal development plan for 2018-21. Through a participatory innovation platform, the city held 98 public meetings in which citizens could discuss ideas, make proposals, and vote on which programs were funded. More than 35,000 citizens voted on 1,052 proposals.
Carlos Marín, Mayor of Manizales, Colombia, said his city generated trust among the people by launching public dialogues and following up on what citizens told them. “We wanted to know what they want – fresh air, clean water, transportation, security. We carried out a transportation plan, taking into account geography. Our city is in the mountains, so we established cable cars and pedestrian streets,” Marin said. “We have to take climate change into account, but after the pandemic we added another layer – the social crisis. Dialogue is the only way out.”
Dealing with inequities
Embedded in the climate crisis are deep inequities in which “those with the least economic means are also those causing the least problem on our planet, and those with the most economic means are those causing the biggest impact,” said Trevor Graham, director of Urbanisland. “The challenge is how to raise the quality of life and standard of living for those with the most need, whilst at the same time driving down those negative impacts.”
To address social equity, cities must tackle over-dependence on cars, said Kimberly Nicholas, senior lecturer at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies. “Car users take 3.5 times more public space than non-car users. In the UK 90% of rich households have cars, but only 40% of low income homes have cars, where women and minorities are concentrated,” Nicholas said. “Local governments hold the key, but they must have courage to use both carrots and sticks — not just provide better public transit, walking and biking, but also restrict parking and driving.”
In the Global South, Atishi Marlena, Member of Legislative Assembly for Delhi, explained how the Party of the Common Man, elected in 2015, transformed public schools, expanded health care, piped clean water, and transitioned to renewable energy, all while raising the city budget 150% and tripling per capita income. “If Delhi, a city of 30M residents, can strive toward equity, inclusion, and sustainability, every city in the world can,” Marlena said.
Other speakers discussed “youthwashing,” or using young people in a performative way. “We are tokenized to say what people want to hear,” said Juliet Oluoch Aluoch of the African Youths Initiative on Climate Change. “What we are asking is for governments to give us a place in the decision-making process. We want our voice to be there from the start in the planning process, to the end and implementation of projects.”
Some cities are doing just that. Cheryl Selby, Mayor of Olympia, WA, USA, described working with youth activists who gave the city – which prided itself on climate action – a C-. As a result of their collaboration, the city passed a Climate Inheritance Resolution, committed to net zero emissions by 2040, and hired its first climate program manager.
Sfântu-Gheorghe, Romania, centers public policy on youth. “We do not make decisions about young people without asking their needs first,” said Vice Mayor Fruzsina Vargha. The city has a youth participation budget that allocates money to projects proposed by young activists. In 2021 they opened Romania’s first youth office, and a youth parliament will meet in 2022.
World Congress host Malmö shows the way
One way Malmö, Sweden, bakes in equity is by localizing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. “When the UN launched the SDGs, we decided immediately to incorporate them in everything we do,” said Mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh. “We saw strong development when we worked with green sustainability, and we saw that we need to make sure our success includes all our residents. So we launched the Commission for a Socially Sustainable Malmö, and we’ve been working to have all perspectives in focus for all our departments, in partnerships with all actors in Malmö. To work from a holistic perspective is important.”
Housing is another area in which Malmö unites social and environmental policy. MKB, the nonprofit housing company owned by Malmö, offers three programs to benefit its residents: tree planting to bring people together, bike school to provide independence by teaching people how to ride, and homework help to provide tutoring and job opportunities for youth in their facilities.
Innovative programs like these are why ICLEI chose Malmö as the location for the 2022 World Congress, where we launched the Malmö Commitment on Inclusive and Equitable Communities, empowering local and regional governments to prioritize all people and social equity at the core of local sustainable development. Find out more about how your city or local government can adopt or support the Malmö Commitment here.
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