Sustainable Cities and Communities: Lessons from Madagascar, Ecuador, Singapore and the UK
To begin with, half of our humanity (3,5 billion) is living in the urban areas - and this is predicted to rise, increasing the pressures and challenges, such as inequality, high energy consumption, pollution, climate change, and natural or structural disasters. As the vulnerability of our cities rise, so does the insecurity of our livelihoods. And these insecurities will affect us all, regardless of whether you live in white fenced suburbia or in the slums or townships.
As our overcrowded communities continue to decline in infrastructure, increase in homelessness rates, the biggest challenge is the lack of financial resources to find the solutions we desperately need. SDG 11 sets out clearly the actions that we can take and state that solutions often come from individual commitment. For example, it suggests that we should take an active interest in the governance and management of the city, taking not of what works and what doesn’t. Or, becoming an advocate for the city you believe you need, developing a vision for your building, street, and neighbourhood, and acting on that vision.
Questions that we need to ask are: Are there enough jobs? Do we live close enough to the healthcare services? Can our children walk to school safely? Can we walk with our family safely at night? How far is the nearest public transport? What’s the air quality like? What are the shared public spaces like? The better the conditions you create in the community, the greater the effect on quality of life. It appears to be a daunting task. Our complex living complicates the search for solutions. But, let’s think from the times when living was simpler and easier.
A few years ago, we were visiting Madagascar and during this trip we came across rural communities. Apart from seeing beautiful scenery and biodiversity, we were also privileged to be amongst the local villagers and see the way they live. Daily chores, such as rice field work is done by the whole family. Children were part of the family activities. Even looking after the home while mother is fetching wood could be the task of a three-year-old, like the little girl we met who appeared to be so independent and village smart. In these communities, people eat what they grow. For example, the need to refrigerate food does not exists as the fresh fruit or vegetables are taken fresh from the tree or the ground. Meat is also sold fresh in the market stalls and eaten within a day or two.
We do not suggest that you get rid of your fridge or freezers, although refrigerant gases, when they leak, are one of the most serious causes of climate change. But starting from our own households, let us think about how can we plan our lifestyle and make choices that will have a better impact in the communities we live. Can we integrate a ‘Systems Philosophy’ discipline? Perhaps, begin by identifying recurring patterns in your lifestyle and adopt new patterns that are less damaging. For example, switching to energy saving bulbs isn’t enough. But if we cycle to work for example, there are countless of benefits to our personal life and to the cities in which we live.
The other scene I remember from our Madagascar trip is the Sunday laundry day. On this day, the families gather by the river, have a picnic and wash their laundry. Although there may be some pollution of the river with soap, it is more than compensated by not using electricity for washing. And more importantly, this gathering creates a space for the sharing of values and togetherness in this community. A lot of discussions happen on this day, talking about their crops, any problems they have and solutions they found.
SDG 11 recommends taking an active interest in governing the community in which you live, which starts by understanding how to create an inclusive community. Perhaps not by reinventing our laundry day, but by creating moments of togetherness and an understanding of the needs of the community you live in. What needs might your neighbours may have? What is it that you can do to be part of your community. Although we have access to the most advanced technologies and knowledge, we have so much to learn from the creativity and the resilience of these communities.
Some of the transformations do not need complex and lengthy planning solutions. Fortunately, even big cities are increasingly transforming urban living. London rooftops are becoming green and creating community spaces such as the Queen Elizabeth Roof Garden Bar & Café, which is run by volunteers who have experienced homelessness, addictions and mental health problems. Although small, the garden is home to over 150 species of native wildflowers, a picnic lawn, fruit trees, a scented garden and even a beehive. It provides its volunteers with a meaningful job and rekindles purpose in their lives, while local citizens have a place to rest, socialise and enjoy nature on the rooftop.
Or Yunguilla Cloud Forest, another community-led organization which we visited, one-hour northwest of Quito in Ecuador at an altitude of 2,650 meters above sea level. This small rural community of about fifty households, have developed a collaborative goal with a strong environmental conscience to protect the area’s biodiversity, cultivate sustainability values and to improve the quality of life. All these are done by generating their own sources of work and production of goods. For example, they made fresh jams from forest fruits, cheese from their dairy cows and provided eco-tourism facilities for visitors. They are also engaged in reforestation of their land, which was previously cleared for cattle farming. We were amazed to understand that the whole idea was behind the simple wish for their children to live in a healthy environment, and to be able to enjoy the existence of wild life in the surrounding forests.
Another very different example, in a very urban and developed Singapore, offers its citizen the most beautiful ‘Gardens by The Bay’, with its Supertree Grove of iconic tree-like structures covered in vertical gardens. These “trees” have large canopies that provide shade in the day and come alive at night with an exhilarating display of light and sound. It was in Singapore that we also visited City Developments Limited’s most innovative housing complex - ‘The Tree House’ – an apartment building with one of the tallest vertical garden in the world. About 2.7 per cent of the total construction cost for the Tree House building was invested into green features, such as the heat-reducing laminated green tinted windows, lifts with variable voltage frequency motor drives and sleep mode programming, and T5 and LED lighting for common areas. The lobbies, carparks and stair wells have motion sensors that activate lights automatically, while the vertical gardens cool the building. These green features result in energy savings of over 2,400,000 kWh per year and water savings of 30,000 cubic metres per year, which is expected to save more than $500,000 annually on utility costs.
So, whether we go for complex or simple solutions, our individual or institutional actions can lead towards creating better, smarter, safer, satisfying and sustainable communities and cities.
We welcome you to join our webinar on the SDG11: Sustainable Cities and Communities on 15 February 2018 at 16:00 CET. You can find all the information on the webinar here, and register here: LINK.
Author: Indira Kartallozi
Indira is a co-director at Kaleidoscope Futures Lab and founder of the Migrant Entrepreneurs International
 The term “Systems Philosophy” was coined by Ervin Laszlo in his book Introduction to Systems Philosophy, published in 1972