people cycling in Copenhagen

09 Dec 2021

Safer, healthier and cleaner cities are at the heart of sustainability

Maxine Gray, Investec

Maxine Gray

Strategy development, Investec Wealth & Investment

Simone Smith

Simone Smith

Head of Compliance, Investec Wealth & Investment

Sustainable Development Goal 11 – sustainable cities, sits at the crossroads of many other sustainability goals, including employment, health, climate change, education and quality of life. It should therefore be central to our sustainability efforts. 

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If you were to imagine what a sustainable city looks like, you might envision a technologically advanced city that has robots performing tasks and solar-run transportation. Perhaps this will be what a sustainable city looks like one day in the future, but the reality is that we can still have sustainable cities today. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11 focuses on creating sustainable cities and communities that are inclusive, safe and well designed for the future.

Sustainability at its core means meeting one’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. With the explosive growth in population that we have experienced, cities are quickly becoming mega cities. Although mega cities may meet the required needs of more space to house its growing population in the short term, the unintended effects can be an irreversible change in ecosystems and the environment.

There is a direct link between the quality-of-life measurement index of cities to the way the city plans and manages its resources. According to the UN’s statistics, the “world’s cities occupy just 3 per cent of the Earth’s land, but account for 60-80 per cent of energy consumption and 75 per cent of carbon emissions”. With more people and housing, these cities inadvertently create urban heat islands as they produce and retain heat, which leads to increased levels of CO2, increased air pollution, waste and the limitation of public green spaces.

According to the UN’s statistics, the “world’s cities occupy just 3 per cent of the Earth’s land, but account for 60-80 per cent of energy consumption and 75 per cent of carbon emissions”.

Cities’ management of these issues is key to increasing the quality of life of its residents, through reducing air pollution and improving waste management which both contribute to good health and wellbeing (a foundational SDG). One can go as far as saying that although SDG 11 is focused on city planning, housing and sustainable urbanisation, the targets can be directly linked to increasing the quality of life.

Cities are becoming increasingly vulnerable to climate change and the impacts of natural disasters. It has been documented that cities create their own weather patterns as they alter existing weather patterns in the region. Cities are built on concrete, which does not allow the climate to naturally regulate itself. Further, with the increase in high-rise buildings, the natural air flow patterns are disrupted. This leads to non-absorption of water, affecting rainfall patterns and creating flooding issues due to limited water runoff. In addition, the heat maps contained within cities captured by the concrete lead to cities becoming warmer, which in turn increases the risk that cities may have heatwaves.

A key aim of SDG 11 is to ensure climate adaptation by changing urban planning and design in ways that work with natural ecosystems and environmental and weather patterns, rather than against them. As climate change becomes increasing felt across the world, cities will need to adapt to remain functional and sustainable for their future inhabitants. Many cities across the world are promoting green rooftops and streets to better manage water runoff and contribute towards improving weather patterns within the city.

Green urbanism

Green urbanism is the practice of creating communities that are beneficial to humans and the environment and has become a key focus of many of the top “green cities” across the globe. Green urbanism refers to the creation of parks and open spaces within a city but also extends to transportation, biodiversity, and increased social interaction.

By redesigning transportation within a city, many cities are moving to sustainable transport alternatives such as bicycles and electric cars in addition to the use of solar powered buses for example. These options are noise free, and they don’t emit the same levels as CO2 which regular cars and other forms of transport do leading to a reduction of air pollution. Green spaces such as public parks or sports fields not only introduce more oxygen and plants into a city, but they lead to increased social interaction, better health practices and create a positive effect on city dwellers, thus helping to improve mental health. Further, these green spaces can be used to run community food gardens to help feed the vulnerable as well as teach city dwellers how to grow their own food and adopt sustainable eating habits such as eating seasonal produce only.

As an example of these initiatives, Copenhagen in Denmark was recently voted the most sustainable city for its progressive eco incentives.  The city has continued to invest in green alternatives with an aim to be the first CO2 neutral city by 2025. Closer to home, Cape Town is being recognised globally for its efforts to focus on sustainability, including getting more of its energy from wind farms, promoting an outdoor lifestyle and focusing on cycle routes and the development of rapid bus routes within the city itself to reduce traffic congestion.

Copenhagen in Denmark was recently voted the most sustainable city for its progressive eco incentives.  The city has continued to invest in green alternatives with an aim to be the first CO2 neutral city by 2025.

Green urbanism can make a huge difference to health outcomes. Research by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health into cities in 31 European countries found that up to 43,000 premature deaths a year could be prevented by simply providing adequate green spaces, in line with World Health Organisation’s recommendations of at least 0.5 hectares of green space no less than 300m away from each home.

Rapid urbanisation has also been linked to the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases – those diseases that have made the transition from other animals to humans – such as Covid-19. Urban planning therefore should also address our relationship with the other species that we share our planet with.

The SDGs are a unique set of goals given the interconnected nature of what they aim to achieve with their related targets. SDG 11 showcases the interconnected nature of the goals best, in our view. As the global population grows, more people move into cities and urban areas as these areas offer the best chance of employment (SDG 1 and 8), education (SDG 4), increased access to medical care (SDG 3) and overall, a better quality of life (SDG 2, 6, 7 and 10). By focusing on making our cities more sustainable and better equipped for the future, we are directly building a foundation for future generations to succeed and thrive within urban areas as we can eliminate poverty, achieve inclusive economic growth, ensure better health and wellbeing, and increase access to education.

We live, work and interact with our communities in our cities and so the focus on sustainability should become a key focus for all city inhabitants going forward. While the future of sustainable cities may look a lot like the picture you see on the cover of magazines or envision in your mind, we can start transitioning our cities today. By shifting to more sustainable practices, we can ensure that the cities of tomorrow are well designed, and highly functional for our children and future generations.

Wind farm
Responsible Investing and Sustainability at Investec Wealth & Investment

As Sustainability is core to our fundamental investment approach, we have integrated ESG considerations into our investment decision making and broader investment process.