Matthew Bach, Source: ICLEI Europe

As city-makers, we are continuously engaged in the task of creating and re-creating our cities

As city-makers, we are continuously engaged in the task of creating and re-creating our cities

Interview with Matthew Bach, Governance and Social Innovation Officer at ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability

Mr Bach, how would you define a sustainable and just city and what factors contribute to it?

A sustainable and just city is in many ways the ideal city. It is a vision towards which we strive in our day-to-day work as individuals and as a network of local governments (ICLEI). However, what is a sustainable and just city? It is a place where all citizens are deeply engaged in the governance of their city through democratic and participatory mechanisms. This is essential to ensure that all voices are heard so that the city can meet the diverse and evolving needs of its inhabitants. Such a city is also a green one with equal access to the benefits of urban nature and biodiversity, as well as one fostering ecological regeneration. It is walkable and well-served by low-carbon modes of transportation. It is a city that offers housing and municipal services to all, regardless of income level, and finds innovative ways to meet the needs of disadvantaged and marginalised groups.

However, urban social inequality and ecological unsustainability are still a reality.

Indeed, inequality and unsustainability are among our grand societal challenges and have even been exacerbated by recent developments, like the financial and housing crises. These trends are putting the social cohesion and resilience of European cities to the test – but there is hope! Many city-makers have devoted themselves to understanding urban social inequality and ecological unsustainability and have identified numerous ways of making cities more just and sustainable. These efforts frequently take the form of experiments, which struggle to be made visible and replicable across geographical contexts. There is therefore an urgent need to synthesise this knowledge and experience, and to create solutions that are broadly applicable and genuinely actionable.

Why is it so key to empower stakeholders to overcome urban social inequality and ecological unsustainability?

Cities are made by all of us, whether newly arrived migrants, local government officials, business owners or researchers. As city-makers, we are continuously engaged in the task of creating and re-creating our cities. However, when citizens and stakeholders are disempowered, cities develop according to the priorities of the few, which exacerbates inequalities and exclusion. Empowering citizens to take part in actively shaping the cities they live in is therefore crucial in order to generate support and momentum for ambitious sustainable and inclusive solutions.

Currently, you are involved in an EU-funded project named UrbanA that pursues to collect all the knowledge for sustainable and just cities and translate it into action. How will you do so?

This is the starting point for UrbanA’s three-year journey. By mapping existing approaches to tackling unsustainability, inequality and exclusion in cities, we seek to empower city-makers to apply this knowledge locally, and, ultimately, influence policies in favor of sustainable and just cities. The power of this knowledge gathering should not be underestimated: attempts to transform our cities begins with an in-depth understanding of how they work and of the range of potential solutions for broader, transformative change.

In UrbanA, we are taking an explicitly transdisciplinary and co-creative approach to the mapping process, and the project as a whole. It is not only about researchers or ‘experts’ collecting ‘data’, but rather a co-creation in which diverse city-makers are engaged in identifying, characterizing, connecting and unlocking approaches and critically reflecting on relevant insights for enabling sustainable and just cities. The aim is not simply to create another database, but rather to serve the creative process envisioned for the UrbanA’s Arena events.

What are these events and how do they encourage exchange and learning?

UrbanA Arena events are co-creative spaces that bring together city-thinkers and city-makers from across Europe to connect with one another, to reflect on previous research, to exchange expertise and ideas, and to generate promising approaches to creating sustainable, inclusive and thriving cities. Each Arena event takes place in a different city and focuses on a specific theme. The events will be blended gatherings, allowing people to participate either in person or online, thereby enabling a more diverse group of stakeholders to take part and minimising our environmental impact. Through the Arena events, we will generate convincing, specific, and actionable solutions towards sustainable cities that foster deep forms of democracy and citizen empowerment.

UrbanA Urban ArenaUpcoming Urban Arena Events in Rotterdam, Barcelona, Berlin and Brussels

In your opinion, on a scale from 0 to 10, how is Europe doing in terms of ensuring sustainability and justice in its cities, and how do you see the future?

Good question! There is a tremendous amount of work being done across local, national and European levels to tackle these questions. The key stumbling block is that efforts targeting sustainable development and those targeting inclusion, equity and justice tend to be divorced from one another. This leads to a frequent mismatch between the two, which is counter-productive and ultimately weakens Europe’s ability to address today’s and tomorrow’s urban challenges. In numerical terms, then, European action in each separate sphere would be a 7 – many meaningful efforts, but with room for improvement – whereas the intersection of sustainability and justice would be closer to a 4. Indeed, the surface has only just been scratched and efforts to link these two areas in practice need to be streamlined across programmes, policies and organisational cultures.

Learn more about the UrbanA project or



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