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Summary: Making Cities Healthy, Green, and Sustainable - AQ Winter 2014 Launch

March 07, 2014

Opening Remarks:

  • Gustavo Arnavat, United States Executive Director, Inter-American Development Bank


  • Tim Docking, Lead, Emerging Markets Funding Group, IBM Public Sector
  • Abha Joshi-Ghani, Director for Knowledge Exchange and Learning (WBIKL), World Bank Institute
  • Ellis Juan, General Coordinator, Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative, Inter-American Development Bank
  • Michael Sorkin, Director, Graduate Program in Urban Design, City College of New York
  • Christopher Sabatini, Editor in Chief, Americas Quarterly; Senior Director of Policy, Americas Society/Council of the Americas (Moderator)


On February 26, the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and AS/COA launched the Winter 2014 issue of Americas Quarterly entitled “Our Cities, Our Future.” With over 80 percent of the population living in cities, the Western Hemisphere is facing the challenges of rapid urbanization, pollution, and climate change. Panelists assessed a key question:  what are cities doing to adapt to climate change, improve livability, and become more socially integrated?  

What Does Sustainability Mean?

The Winter 2014 issue of AQ covers the multiple dimensions of sustainability, encompassing issues of the “environment, transportation, climate and energy efficiency, and social inclusion,” explained moderator Christopher Sabatini. City College of New York’s Michael Sorkin defined sustainability as the need to “replace the resources we use so they will be sufficient for future generations.” In an urban context, sustainability is a question of effectively measuring a city’s ecological footprint—the rate at which humans consume—to decrease its impact. But in addition to preserving environmental assets for future generations, sustainable cities should also provide decent quality of life for their inhabitants, as the IDB’s Ellis Juan pointed out. According to Juan, the IDB has designed its sustainability projects in Latin America based on three dimensions: environmental and climate change, urban sustainability, and financial sustainability. The projects use variables gathered from public services, water systems, urban planning, and the use of land, among others, to create programs that help local governments mobilize funds for infrastructure projects. The World Bank is also addressing the shortages of energy, water, and food—as exacerbated by rapid urbanization—by focusing on emerging cities, versus more established metropolitan centers.

The Role of Technology in Sustainability

Technology is a key component in creating a sustainable environment. “The application of smart city technologies are not only making municipalities more efficient, but have also proven to be engines of economic growth,” said the IDB’s Gustavo Arnavat, highlighting the importance of using innovation and technology to create smarter, more efficient cities. As cities grow and technology becomes more accessible, citizen participation online can have an impact on local policy. “We see data as the new natural resource,” said IBM’s Tim Docking, referring to the increase in user-generated content through mobile technology. The role of technology and innovation should not be limited to gadgets, but should beincorporated in city planning and coordination between government agencies and institutions, said the World Bank Institute’s Abha Joshi-Ghani. Sorkin suggested that cities should concentrate on “appropriate technology,” which means approaching infrastructure pragmatically by focusing on the demand for specific resources rather than expanding technology for technology’s sake. “If we’re going to be truly sustainable, the simplest solutions have to be the default,” said Sorkin. Panelists also stressed the importance of efficient data collection. Data can prompt sustainable changes and boost collaboration between cities but those using the data “have to be able to measure it, record it, and demonstrate it,” added Joshi-Ghani.

Social Inclusion and Public-Private Partnerships

Sustainability inherently carries with it issues of equity and resource distribution. While in the 1950s and 1960s the conversation of inclusion revolved around rural development and land distribution, “now people are talking about urban reform, architecture, policy reform, and politics and inclusion as it affects their daily lives and interactions with their elected authorities,” Sabatini pointed out.  With rural populations migrating to urban areas, today’s efforts must focus on helping future cities grow more sustainable, avoiding urban sprawl, and ensuring impoverished urban dwellers access to basic infrastructure. “Anything sustainable has to be equitable, inclusive, and green,” said Joshi-Ghani.  But inclusive growth is difficult when there is no capital to begin with: only 4 percent of the 500 biggest cities in the developing world can actually access capital markets necessary to fund infrastructure projects. With almost a trillion dollars worth of infrastructure investments required for cities each year, private-public partnerships are key to resource efficient and inclusive growth led by cities. Taking responsibility for the human footprint on the planet has to happen in a democratic way. “To speak about sustainability without talking about equity and environmental justice,” Sorkin said, “is to miss a key piece of the point.”