Sustainable, inclusive cities: a grand challenge

When I was considering how to begin my capstone proposal, I didn’t know where to start. Envisioning a process for writing a framework that countries can follow to develop sustainable, accessible and inclusive cities seemed like a great idea when I began this class, but now, as the prospect of actually creating this thing is daunting. I decided to make a “mind map” (something that my professors had us do when I was abroad) to clear my mind and put some ideas on paper. What I ended up with was a spider-like diagram that was barely legible, containing only some of the parts that an inclusive sustainable city needs. My page was full, but I could still see things that were missing: what about the governance feedback loops? Should I spaces for community gardens? Will there be room for new businesses and entrepreneurs to make a living in the city? It struck me then that, although I had considered that urban planning for inclusivity and sustainability was a challenge, I had not considered how much of a grand challenge this would be.

When we’re talking about sustainable urban planning, the normal aspects of “green” living come to mind: parks, street trees, rooftop gardens, etc. When discussing inclusive planning, other details of the urban landscape pop up: ample ramps, elevators in all buildings and public transit stops, cross walks that vibrate and tell you when to cross the street. The problem is that these two things are seldom thought of in tandem. Sustainability and inclusivity are often placed in two separate camps and addressed by separate groups of people.

If we conceptualize the main problem as population growth and climate change, which are also interconnected, grand challenges, it is easier to see how both inclusivity and sustainability need to be integrated. As population growth continues, more and more people will live in cities; cities that need to be denser and well-built. Building well means accounting for everyone’s needs and ensuring that all urban dwellers have the ability to choose what kind of life they want to lead. In the context of climate change, cities need to be resilient and built to withstand more frequent and intense weather events, and an integral part of this resiliency is making sure that people have access to necessities like healthcare, healthy food, transportation, and education.

Designing cities to be both sustainable and inclusive means reorganizing and rebuilding them better, not bigger. Persons with disabilities have been left out of the sustainability conversation for too long, and we cannot continue along this path if we hope to address this grand challenge. Everyone has a part to play, everyone has a voice. This is a challenge we must address together.