What makes cities sustainable ?

By Aparna Dua, Senior Manager Asha Impact


More than half the world’s population lives in cities today and is estimated to grow to over two thirds by 2030[1]. In India, about a third of the 1.25 billion population lives in cities and will account for 70% of the GDP by 2030[2], a parallel to the global economy where 60–70% of the economy is currently driven by cities. It is disheartening then, that rather than celebrating the rise of urbanization and cities, one often hears the vitriol that dense cities are at the heart of increasing political and social volatility and economic instability. It is this logical fallacy that heightens the case of building cities more effectively and sustainably, and flipping the narrative where compact cities are seen as engines of economic growth, innovation, social and cultural development and much more.

It is this logical fallacy that heightens the case of building cities more effectively and sustainably, and flipping the narrative where compact cities are seen as engines of economic growth, innovation, social and cultural development and much more.

Before we begin to explore ways to make cities sustainable, it is imperative to understand the complex social, economic and ecological subsystems of a city and the reasons behind their breakdown culminating in challenges such as inadequate provision of housing, sanitation, electricity, water and food, rising poverty and crime, growing landfills, lack of infrastructure and poor mobility which can broadly be divided into three categories:

  • Infrastructure and mobility: The current model of urbanization promotes low-density growth, leading to unaffordable housing within cities and increasing urban sprawl. The situation is exacerbated by the lack of good trunk infrastructure and public transportation options to city peripheries. This has given rise to slums in many cities today where people reside in deplorable conditions. Up to 37 million households — a quarter of India’s urban population — live in informal housing including slums due to a critical shortage of affordable housing[3]. The urban sprawl and lack of planned growth has also deprived many of basic amenities such as access to healthcare, education, electricity, drainage and sanitation, parks and recreational areas as it puts pressure on a city’s already constrained financial resources. As a current resident of Gurugram, I’ve experienced this first hand as roads, open drain pipes etc. go unrepaired for months on end.
  • Environment and natural resources: In the absence of good urban planning, cities are also suffocating under the piles of waste generated everyday, which end up in unscientific landfills, leading to loss of wealth on one hand, and soil and water pollution on the other. Read more on the challenges plaguing the waste sector here. Overly crowded cities are also crumbling under pressure to provide clean air and water to its citizens, as there aren’t concrete policies, planning or actions to curb pollution. Again, Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi are prime examples here.
  • Economic development: Growth in cities is not sustainable due to lack of jobs and economic opportunities and the widespread existence of an informal economy. This leads to economic hardship, unequal access to urban services and amenities, poor quality of life and social unrest making cities unsafe. Lack of stable state and local policies fails to attract new investment and industry into cities, leading to a vicious cycle of cities not being able to provide basic infrastructure and amenities to its citizens.

All these challenges are merely symptoms of the diseases plaguing cities today. For a city to become sustainable, we need to treat the root causes of the problem and find systemic solutions to them. Underlying most, if not all these challenges is a weak governance system and poor urban planning. We need to empower local governments, build capacity, accountability and transparency at the grassroots and involve citizens in decision-making. It is a not a battle that governments can wage alone, but one that will require collaboration amongst all stakeholders including the government, private sector, citizens and NGOs. We can look externally to cities like Munich, Singapore, Zurich that have taken strides to build resilient, safe, inclusive and sustainable cities.

In this series, we’ll take up each challenge listed above to unpack the causes, discuss global examples of how other cities have tackled some of these, look at CSOs and social enterprises in India who are innovating to solve these issues and provide recommendations of ways in which the private and public sector can collaborate to scale these solutions.

I would also love to hear your ideas and suggestions so we can work towards a more sustainable tomorrow.

[1] UN Habitat 2016World Cities Report

[2] McKinsey Global Institute: India’s Global Awakening

[3] FSG: Informal Housing, Inadequate Property Rights — FSG