Sustainable cities: Is there a future? A report from the audience 

CIRIA competition winner and recent graduate Chloe McFarlane provides an overview of CIRIA’s recent annual debate on sustainable cities

Hi, my name is Chloe McFarlane and I recently completed a BSc (Hons) Geography degree at the University of Hertfordshire. Last year, I joined the London Academy of Urbanism as a Young Urbanist; I am extremely fascinated by the concept of sustainable urbanism and the challenges in trying to deploy this.
The first speaker of the debate was Malcom Smith, from ARUP’s Masterplanning & Urban Design team. One prominent quote he continuously iterated was that “a city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time…” (Patrick Geddens). Cities are in constant transition. This is a result of various internal & external system changes. The number of people living in urban areas is rapidly rising, technological change (i.e. increasing car dependency) has alluded to changes in urban form (correlating with such, suburban expansion), and reflecting environmentally, climate change is occurring. Following 2016’s unanticipated EU referendum result, the process of Brexit is now taking place. Sarah Toy, Strategic Resilience Officer at Bristol City Council, called such changes “system disruptions”. She further stressed their inevitability. For 21st century cities to be resilient, it is critical that they adapt to such perturbations and there implications. In turn, this will immensely benefit the well being of its inhabitants.

Founding Director of the Cluster of Sustainable Cities, Steffen Lehman, felt that knowledge regarding the creation of sustainable cities already exists. Stemming from Jane Jacobs early ideas concerning urban development, it has been asserted that cities should be high density, mixed-use and of a walkable scale. This is in light of the many benefits- predominantly environmental (i.e. modal shift) and social (e.g. community integration) which can be harnessed. Despite theory existing, many factors can influence how successful actual implementation is... One is institutional capacity. Dr Sally Uren, final speaker of the night and Chief Executive of Forum for the Future, argued that the exclusion of certain groups (notably at the grassroots level) from the design process can too influence how well cities adapt to change. Not underplaying the role of devolution, she expressed that “resilient cities are a beautiful collaboration of business, government, society and local communities”. 

The role of technology in enhancing urban resilience is receiving more attention. Refreshingly, from a postmodern perspective, Dr Uren concluded the debate saying that the future of cities is plural. She emphasised how technology, “as people can’t imagine”, can be used to simulate and apprehend how different future megatrends may interact and heighten the complexity of urban living. Although such technology exists, it is fundamental that people still take precedence in the design of sustainable cities and that the impacts of adaptations made are continuously monitored and evaluated to enable positive evolutionary outcomes.

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