Sustainable development: achievable or just a dream?

Sholto Byrnes on what mega cities need to do to develop and expand sustainably.

Singapore scores highly in terms of education, transparency, per capita income and ease of doing business. Roslan Rahman / AFP
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It is possible that some readers are not aware that the United Nations launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) earlier this year. It may have slipped the minds of others that the SDGs replaced the MDGs – the Millennium Development Goals. And it is barely conceivable that some are so cynically disposed that they might agree with the British-Indian economist Meghnad Desai, who believes that all such goals are a part of the UN’s “non-stop search for relevance”.

“Most likely,” he wrote in an essay two years ago, “as in the case of all the UN Decades, the targets will be missed. Doubtless the MDGs will be relaunched as Super MDGs with a new deadline and more urgent appeals for greater effort. More conferences and more reports will follow. Plus a change …”

It is true that even those who harbour greater optimism about the UN’s power to do good question whether the SDGs are too many, at 17, and in some cases just too vague. Who could disagree with Number 3: “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”?

At least the MDGs had the virtue of being only eight, and also contained clear, quantifiable targets. Take the first MDG: “Halve the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day.” By 2013, that target had been met. Tick box.

Similarly realisable goals or tangible ambitions would be useful for the SDGs. And I came across a rather amazing one the other day, while reading Kishore Mahbubani’s new collection of essays, Can Singapore Survive?

“If the rest of the world could agree to accept the living conditions of Singaporeans,” he writes, then the Earth’s nearly 7 billion population “may need only an area the size of South Africa to live in. Somehow, this possibility does make the planet appear less crowded.” Leave aside all the rankings in which Singapore scores so highly, from education to transparency, to per capita income and ease of doing business, which would make this a tempting prospect in any case.

What’s remarkable about this is that Singapore is not just a city. It is a country – and, considering its population density, it is an extremely green one, dotted with parks, lakes, foliage and beachfronts. If the whole world could live like that, with the rest of the Earth left to regenerate and be used and developed sustainably, isn’t rethinking the city the kind of big idea we should all be contemplating?

This is pressing, as urbanisation is only increasing. By 2009, more than half the world’s population was living in cities, and the trend is towards megalopolises, with smaller ones frequently in decline. This week’s Economist reports that one in 10 US cities is shrinking, as are over one-third in Germany. Meanwhile, the likes of Beijing and Shanghai in China, Mumbai and Delhi in India, Lagos in Nigeria and Jakarta in Indonesia are expanding rapidly. The population of Delhi, for instance, increased by 40 per cent from 2003 to 2013.

How this growth is managed is crucial. Delhi is a good case in point, with a recent study finding that just under half the city’s 4.4 million schoolchildren are growing up with irreversible lung damage from the terrible pollution. Beijing’s smog is better known but, according to the World Health Organisation, it is only half as bad as Delhi’s.

If careful husbandry of the environment is key to a successful city, then all might take lessons from Singapore and Manhattan. Prof Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, dreams of his city-state becoming near car-less. He admits this may strike many as risible, especially given the extent to which personal vehicles are considered status symbols. But then one evening, he writes, “I saw the former chairman of Citibank, Walter Wriston, and his wife Kathryn standing on First Avenue trying to hail a cab. Clearly, Mr Wriston was then one of the richest men on our planet. He could easily have bought a car in Manhattan. Yet, it just did not make sense”.

Create the right ecosystem, with excellent public transport, plentiful taxis, and before long, a system whereby an app can send a driverless electric car to your doorstep within minutes (why not?), and you instantly have a much cleaner and less congested urban landscape.

The importance of public transport has been recognised in the Gulf’s rapidly expanding metropolises. Dubai’s elegantly designed metro is an adornment to the city. Abu Dhabi is considering its own plans, while half of Doha seems to have been dug up to accommodate what a Londoner such as myself will always insist on calling “the tube”, wherever it is in the world.

The Manhattan-Singapore model suggests high density, with large open spaces and a wide variety of communal destinations for socialising, the arts, sports, dining, shopping and other activities. Clearly this would also require strong civic pride and the careful nurturing of commonalities and tolerance. Yet both of those places are home to extraordinarily diverse populations; and they work.

So just hold that thought again: the whole planet could live in developed-world circumstances, with a highly developed infrastructure, green spaces, excellent career prospects, health care and a welfare safety net, all in an area actually less than the size of South Africa.

Yes, it’s a dream. But maybe such imagination is what we need to demand of the planners of our cities. That, surely, is a sustainable development goal we could all sign up to. For it is in those cities that we are increasingly going to live.

Sholto Byrnes is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia