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Cities need to be democratic and livable, not just 'green'

by Camila Bustos | Brown University Climate and Development Lab
Monday, 1 September 2014 17:00 GMT

Passengers of the Bogota rapid bus network, known locally as TransMilenio, wait in a station for their route in a central avenue in Bogota, Colombia, on September 29, 2011. REUTERS/Felipe Caicedo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

What makes a city sustainable? It’s inclusiveness and equal access to services as much as clean air

In a country like Colombia where war, poverty and corruption dominate the public debate, we need to make the case for why sustainable development is development for all citizens. The way we address energy, transport and waste management issues, especially in cities is an inherently political question because it defines how we develop and who benefits.

These questions need to be addressed now while we still have time to shape the future of our cities. The Rio+20 conference recently held in Colombia is an important example of this.  

Last month, the city of Bogotá hosted a follow up conference to the Rio+20 meeting in 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, part of a process organised by the United Nations on sustainable development.  Although these types of international conferences can feel far removed from citizens, this conference was different given its strong focus on sustainable cities, transport and tourism.

Bogotá’s efforts and leadership in sustainable transport projects including electric taxicabs and the hybrid fleet of Transmilenio, the city’s massive public transport system, played a key role in its selection as host city. Meanwhile, Colombia is being ravaged by the impacts of climate change across its departments with historic droughts in Casanare and water scarcity in La Guajira. One can argue this conference took place at the right time.

Strong urbanisation is re-shaping the developing world with most of the expected economic growth likely to occur there. More than 50 percent of the global population and 80 percent of Latin Americans live in urban areas. Cities are also responsible for 75 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions. With city politics and governance arguably closer to most citizens than national governments, cities can act as catalysts for positive change.


Despite the fact that Bogotá continues to grow, social inequality holds it back. There are those that argue that sustainable development is a distraction from the most pressing concerns such as improving education and tackling corruption. Yet this rationale is unhelpful since it relegates sustainable development to the traditionally peripheral environmental agenda rather than placing it at the top of the political one.

Sustainable development is more than an environmental issue. It means higher living standards for everyone, better urban mobility, cleaner air, abundant green recreational spaces, food security and healthier citizens. Events like Rio + 20 are great spaces to foster dialogue especially when they offer an opportunity for citizens to re-think their city and imagine a better future. In order to engage the public, we will need a sustainable development narrative of inclusiveness and accessibility.

Citizens should demand cities that are people-centric with better public transport and resource efficient. This will only happen when our governments are held accountable for their actions. They deserve credit when they make the right choices, but they need to be challenged when they fail to defend the public interest.  We need to identify city champions in public office and in business that are committed to fostering positive change.  

Sustainable and walkable cities are in our reach. We need to move away from the notion that poor air quality, restrictive mobility and insufficient green spaces are inevitable.

How we manage energy, transport and waste management will define whether development works or not for most of us. Taking the rights steps now can avoid being trapped by the consequences of the wrong long-term decisions. It’s essential to remember that a sustainable society does not only mean lower greenhouse gas emissions. It means egalitarian, democratic, and more human urban space to live in.

Camila Bustos is a researcher at Brown University's Climate and Development Lab and lead researcher at Nivela. This article first appeared on Nivela.