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The Urban Road to a Sustainable Future

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By Lorenzo Marchese Many organizations and political groups share the opinion that the first step to make our life sustainable is to make our social habitat sustainable. Cities are the centre of our social life and the way they will be built and planned in the future needs to take notice of this priority.

On the 10th of April, political actors, stakeholders and experts were gathered in a seminar organized by SAAB to explore what are the core elements that a sustainable urban environment should have in the future.

Sustainability is one of the key words we often hear in the political priorities of the European Union for the next decades. It is generally agreed that our lifestyle needs to change if we want to be able to keep up with our living standards without deteriorating available resources beyond recovery. However, while often mentioned, it is rarely explained what is meant by sustainability and often we do not get to know how institutions and leaders intend to provide policies to deliver it.

This has brought us to question the reality of the political will to bring about a society funded on this value. But we should not lose hope. There are many actors out there who still campaign and fight for sustainability in our present and future life. Recently, at a seminar organized by SAAB European office – one of the most important private actors in the sector of defense and technological advancement – different speakers gathered to explain how sustainable policies can be thought and implemented in what could be considered the space for societal living: cities.

How can a city be more attractive?” was the question asked at the seminar: the answer focused on efficiency, security and sustainability. In every speaker’s opinion the three were connected - it was said that to be secure and efficient a city has to be sustainable. It was also agreed that the key to sustainability was technological advancement.

Carl-Johan Koivisto, Head of New Business Initiatives at SAAB, argued in his introductory speech that technology was the way to sustainability and the collaboration with technology developers and providers for urban environments was the strategy to walk that way.

Jeremy Van Gorp, President of the Young European Federalist Brussels section, gave an insight in what would be required for sustainability by the young generations: it must take in account the living standards which they are used to. Young people live in a world of high speed technology, are sensitized to environmental issues and are used to a globalized world while appreciating localized services. Sustainability must be integrated in these standards and expectations.

Similarly, Henriette Van Eijl, representing the Directorate General for Transport of the European Commission, reinforced the idea that only partnerships and collaborations with different associations can create a fertile ground for the acquisition, regulation and planning of policies aiming to develop sustainable cities. These strategies must “technologically funded” to hope to deliver results.

However, technological advancement is only one side of the coin. The other key factor is collaboration with citizens in cities to maximize results and achieve transparency. A point introduced already by Mr. Koivisto, citizens participation was discussed as the second underlying requisite for sustainable cities. According to Silvio Heinze from the Federation of Young European Greens, sustainability is not achievable if citizens on the ground are not involved at every stage in the designing and implementation of policies. He gave the example of ‘crowdsourcing’ as a possible path to make grassroots ideas join the political process, while keeping an open eye for transparency and privacy.

Even while exploring the themes of technology and citizens participation as the way to practically realize sustainable development, the seminar gave also an insight in the many political choices that need to be taken.

MEP Jan Olbrycht, Chair of the European Parliament Urban Intergroup, gave an insight of the many practical challenges political will faces every day: should the principle of subsidiarity be used to delegate responsibility for sustainable urban development directly to cities or must it pass through regional governance? What is the impact of sustainability on social welfare – will permanent housing become less affordable? How should funding be prioritized: by projects or by territory? These are but few of the questions that political actors have to face every time they try to design and implement new policies in this field.

Nonetheless, this seminar has clarified that there still is a clear political will to achieve sustainability – starting with urban development. Public and private actors, as well as civil society’s organizations, gathered together in Brussels to affirm it most firmly by identifying the political priorities which can lead to a more sustainable future.