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Building sustainable cities

For many years now, the term sustainability has become a buzzword, especially since the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in 2015. We often hear and read about it in the news, it has become a staple in development policies, and even the corporate world has been embracing the term. It’s as if having the word “sustainable” on anything makes it more acceptable to the people.

In reality, sustainability is more than just sounding good; it is a lot of work, it is undoing many bad practices and habits; oftentimes, it is about choosing what’s better over more convenient; and most important, it is turning commitments into concrete action.

In essence, sustainability is about living our life purposefully and with regard to those who come after us. It is being mindful of what the earth gives us, and what we give back to it.

SDG setback

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a major setback on the SDGs. The goals on reducing poverty and hunger have either stalled or gone backwards.

According to the United Nations (UN), in 2020, over 100 million people were pushed back into poverty and hunger; an equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs were lost; and an additional 101 million children and youth fell below the minimum reading proficiency level, practically erasing the education gains achieved over the last two decades. 

We are nowhere near achieving the SDGs by 2030. Clearly, there is no time to waste. While there is a proposed timeline, we must act to achieve these sustainability goals with urgency, as if our life depended on it — because that is actually the case. 

Sustainable cities

The way we live and where we live are huge factors on how we can achieve our sustainability goals.

More than half of the global population resides in cities. And many of these cities are struggling with environmental degradation, traffic congestion, inadequate urban infrastructure, and a lack of basic services, such as water supply, sanitation, and waste management.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), cities generate over 80 percent of gross domestic product in many countries in Asia and the Pacific and are engines of economic growth that have lifted millions from poverty. But in the next two decades, Asia’s cities will become home to another 1.1 billion people, as the poor continue to be drawn to better opportunities.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres emphasized on the pivotal role cities play in sustainable development, stressing that while cities are engines of economic growth and innovation that hold the key to achieving the SDGs, they are also at the forefront of the world’s most pressing challenges, such as the climate crisis and growing inequalities.

SDG 11 calls on us to make all communities environmentally conscious; build resilience to social, economic and natural disasters; ensure inclusivity in all communities; and make economic activity and jobs generation motivated by the competitive nature of sustainable communities.

There needs to be significant transformation in the way urban spaces are built and managed. A sustainable city improves the quality of life of the citizens not only of the present, but also of the future.

Among the key strategies to building a sustainable city include: investing in green infrastructure, promoting sustainable transportation, ensuring the availability of green spaces, encouraging energy efficiency and renewable energy use, supporting local food production where urban farming is promoted, and improving water conservation and wastewater management.

Above all, I think the most important strategy in building a sustainable city, and in achieving the SDGs in general, is ensuring community engagement. Each and every citizen must be part of the solution. We must all have an appreciation of the significance of each strategy to our own lives. We must understand that in choosing to act sustainably now, we are building a better future not only for our children but also for more generations to come.

The SDGs are “a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future,” if we dream of such, then we must be part not only of the dream but of every solution that must be done to achieve it.

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