The future of cities: our position

With most of the world living in cities, we're going to need a lot more community resource-sharing and stronger local democracy: Friends of the Earth's position.
21 Feb 2018     |       5 minute read

Summary

Cities are where most people live and where we consume most of the world’s resources. The impact of cities is felt in every corner of the world. Most are heavily polluting and scarred by inequality, but cities have the potential to take the lead and change how we care for people and our planet. To do this well, cities need greater self-determination, deeper democracy and a focus on sharing.

Facts about cities

  1. Seoul in South Korea has a city-funded project called Sharing City. Sharing is seen as the solution to shortages in housing, transportation and parking, as well as excess pollution and unbalanced use of resources. It will create jobs and rebuild trusting, close communities.
  2. By 2013, the C40 cities network made up of the world’s largest cities and some smaller greener ones, had taken 8,068 actions on climate change – double the total for 2011. From shared bikes to LED lighting to rapid bus systems, cities are making powerful changes.
  3. Big cities around the UK are still widely dictated to by centralised government and have little control over decision-making. Within the UK, Scotland has its own government and substantial power over rule-making and public spending. But London, with a much bigger population than Scotland, still has little power over its own governance. 

The problem with cities

Our cities have long been centres of pollution. For a century after the Industrial Revolution, Britain’s cities were enveloped in thick smog. Illnesses such as rickets were endemic due to the lack of sunlight. Things aren’t much better today in many cities across the globe. And even though standards of living have improved in the UK, air pollution still kills many people in our cities.

Cities are vulnerable to climate change, with major coastal ones under serious threat from rising seas and extreme weather. Yet cities are responsible for 70% of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change – creating the very conditions that threaten them. Most people in the world already live in a city or large town, and 70% of us may do so by 2050.

Most of the world’s resources of food and products are used in cities. Environmental damage around the world is driven by over-consumption. With cities growing larger all the time, the threat to the environment is critical.

Shocking levels of inequality are also found in our cities. Luxury gated communities sit alongside slums, and the income gap between rich and poor is getting wider.

Our view on the future of cities

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the battle for sustainability will be won or lost in cities.

Friends of the Earth believes cities need three key changes to win this battle: greater self-determination, deeper democracy and a focus on sharing.

Self-determination

UK cities cannot determine their own destiny because power and decision-making are centralised in Westminster. The people best placed to understand the needs and opportunities of cities are people in cities themselves, not distant politicians and civil servants.

Cities should be allowed to:

  • Introduce housing and energy-efficiency regulations, rent controls, and land taxes to ensure everyone has access to decent, affordable housing.
  • Raise their own taxes, from income or businesses, as is the norm in the Nordic and Baltic countries.
  • Regulate their public transport systems to keep them affordable and efficient.

Deeper democracy

In times of economic hardship, some people suggest we should put businesses in the driving seat. But history has taught us that power in the hands of the few often neglects the needs of the many.

Rather than handing over power to big business, we need to:

  • Involve more people in decision-making and encourage communities to participate.
  • Distribute power by budgeting more fairly – with citizens’ involvement.
  • Educate all citizens, including the most marginalised, empowering them to engage with politics and shape their futures.

Sharing

Sharing has always been an important part of city life – through libraries, green spaces and public transport. But we can share more.

Through sharing we can:

  • Use the density of urban populations to our advantage – sharing tools, cars, bikes, digital networks, office space, allotments, community energy, 3D printing and much more. There’s little that can’t be shared.
  • Open up opportunities for low-income households to use resources that are currently out of their reach, and foster stronger community engagement.

Self-determination, deeper democracy and sharing are socially progressive and will improve urban environments and the wellbeing of all citizens. If cities can take the lead, we’ll be a long way towards solving many of our world’s environmental challenges.