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Barbora Melis: Are we running out of time?

Barbora Melis, Dipl. Ing., RTPI, is a PhD Candidate and PTHP Tutor at the School of Architecture, University of Portsmouth (UK). She is undertaking her PhD research in collaboration with the New York Institute of Technology and the Pratt Institute (USA).

The World Urban Campaign (WUC), an advocacy and partnership platform co-ordinated by UN-Habitat, recently hosted two significant events in New York on July 12 and 13. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) is a long-strand partner of the WUC and as an RTPI member, I was delighted to support these events which aligned with WUC's participation in the UN High-Level Political Forum 2023,  focusing on accelerating recovery from COVID-19 and realising the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, especially SDG11.

The initial event, titled "UN Sustainable Development Roundtable", revolved around urgent measures called upon by the UIA World Congress of Architects held in Copenhagen. Central to the discussions was the principle: "leave no one behind". This emphasises a united effort to combat systemic inequalities, fostering a just society, and is essential for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The essence is clear: a just society is inherently sustainable, and there's a dire need to bridge inequalities to reach more specific goals that encompass inclusiveness. Such goals ensure everyone, irrespective of their background, has equal opportunities and resources.

Representatives at the roundtable underlined the following keywords for a sustainable, waste-free and just society:

  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Decarbonisation
  • Circularity and reuse

The subsequent event on July 13, a joint venture of WUC & FIABCI, focused on notable Real Estate practices enhancing urban resilience and sustainability, particularly in North America. Highlighted international neighbourhood designs aimed at elevating the quality of life included:

  • Madrid Nuevo Norte's wind garden
  • Geneva's lake water cooling techniques
  • The green-clad office block in Düsseldorf
  • Moreno's innovative 15-minute city concept

Pioneering architectural endeavours showcased in New York were:

  • The state-of-the-art all-electronic Chase J.P. Morgan HQ
  • The proactive Flood Implementation Plan for Lower Manhattan
  • The Hudson Yards project

Both forums echoed a sentiment: design innovations abound, but their urban implementation is often shaped by local disparities - the denser the area, the more pronounced these disparities become. While challenges are ubiquitous, they vary in nature, magnitude, and context. Despite the enormity of these challenges, we possess vast resources to address them. Objectives such as curbing greenfield developments, prioritising adaptive reuse, and valuing cultural heritage are pivotal in transforming urban living spaces. Furthermore, setting an energy goal of 2000-watt/person for cities can significantly reduce carbon footprints.

The SDGs offer a clear path forward, giving design professionals tangible objectives and encouraging a comprehensive, interdisciplinary design approach. This is captured in the "4 D’s" mantra: design for zero energy consumption, adaptability, programmatic evolution, and integrating local insights to enhance city resilience.

Given our extensive knowledge, technology, and tools supporting SDG11, the pressing question remains: Why are we on the brink of missing our target in a mere seven years?

In 2023, it has been confirmed that the planet is on a trajectory to reach an average temperature increase of 1.5 ºC by 2030. There's an increasing urgency for organisations like RTPI and others devoted to the SDGs. In the coming years, their roles will likely evolve. It won't be enough to merely promote and celebrate successful case studies (the "what") or to elucidate systemic approaches for achieving sustainability (the "how"). Instead, a significant focus will be to actively emphasise to political decision-makers the importance of time (the “when”).

The pressing timeline makes every moment crucial. Every planner, in this context, has the potential to be more than just a professional — they can be a catalyst, amplifying the RTPI message that time is of the essence.

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