The Challenges of Achieving Sustainable Urban Development

Cities are among the most complex systems on the planet. They involve social structures, laws, people, ecosystems, built environments and cultures. They are ever changing and firmly rooted in their local context.


New cities are emerging and many existing cities are becoming larger as the world is undergoing increasing urbanization. For the first time in history the majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas. Given continuing urbanization and population growth 2.5 billion people will be added to the urban population by 2050, according to the UN. 66 percent of the world’s population are predicted to be living in urban areas by 2050. This means that we will have to build more city space in the next thirty years than has been built so far in human history.

Meeting this target, moreover, will necessarily also require adaptations to address complex global challenges such as climate change, segregation, poverty, resource constraints, ageing population as well unequal power structures.

Tackling the challenges

Tackling these challenges often seems to require contradictory interventions. A city should be convenient and easy to live in but not adversely affect the environment, economically prosperous without social exclusion. There should be a high level of citizen participation in democratic processes, without the latter becoming slow and ineffective.

Wicked challenges

The challenges are not only contradictory but wicked. They are inherently cross-sectorial and bring together a variety of overlapping, interdependent, competing and even conflicting agendas. Part of the wickedness is that they cannot be reduced to their component parts, solved in isolation and put back together. No single actor can solve the challenges alone as a broad range of experiences and competences are needed.

However, society is not structured to handle these challenges. It does not stimulate wide-ranging cooperation as it is divided into sectors, organisations, departments and disciplines. The traditional expert-driven model where scientists and other professionals create supposedly objective facts or truths that are used to support decision-making and action is also insufficient. Knowledge has to be drawn upon from both research and practice.

Cities are the part of the answer

Despite all of this, cities have the potential to answer future human needs. The benefits of living together are substantial. It’s in cities you’ll find the greatest opportunities to optimize resources and make them available for all. The concentration of knowledge and shared systems, for everything from energy to transports, can maximize both human and economical values. Cities can give more than they take.

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