Solving grand challenges together: Sustainability for cities

The world is constantly evolving. As we strive to combat climate change, increase efficiencies and improve quality of life,  individuals, society, businesses and technology are in constant evolution and growth. We are experiencing a whiplash state of change today and our cities and communities cannot sit back. Just like in commerce, a city must be forward thinking and keep pace with the needs and wants of its citizens and attune to the changes in its environment, or it’s at risk of losing businesses and people, and experiencing a diminishing quality of life.

“Globalization, digitalization, innovation and internationalization have had significant impacts on cities with more travel, immigration, increased options for consumers, threats and more. These are the reasons that cities must evolve. They need to think more innovatively about how sustainable they are today and what they need to do in the future to be livable, resilient and sustainable places,” says Dr. Sylvie Albert, professor in the Department of Business and Administration at the University of Winnipeg, specializing in community economic development and the resiliency and sustainability of cities.

Setting goals
In recent years, concerns over sustainability have grown in significance for corporations and governments around the world. According to the United Nations’ (UN) Brundtland Commission, sustainability is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

To make our cities and the planet more sustainable and help to “transform our world,” the UN has created 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and is calling for all countries to promote prosperity while protecting the planet.

“(The goals) recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, social protection and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection,” states the UN’s website.

Although federal and provincial governments have an important role to play, the city is in the best position to act—it can mobilize citizens, businesses and civil society to partner and collaborate.

Albert is confident that if cities around the world worked with their stakeholders to solve the challenges identified in the 17 SDG goals, we could see significant improvements to our quality of life, a reduction in threats to the environment and begin to safeguard the planet for future generations.

Goal number 11 is specifically focused on cities: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. But cities really need to be involved in most, if not all, of the 17 goals. According to the UN, “cities occupy just three per cent of the earth’s land, but account for 60 to 80 per cent of energy consumption and 75 per cent of carbon emissions. Many cities are also more vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters due to their high concentration of people and location, so building urban resilience is crucial to avoid human, social and economic losses.”

There are ten targets or indicators of sustainability proposed within SDG goal number 11 and they are:

  • safe and affordable housing
  • inclusive and sustainable urbanization
  • reduce the adverse effects of natural disasters
  • provide access to safe and inclusive green and public spaces
  • implement policies for inclusion, resource efficiency and disaster risk reduction
  • affordable and sustainable transport systems
  • protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage
  • reduce the environmental impact of cities
  • strong national and regional development planning
  • support least developed countries in sustainable and resilient building

There are over 160 more indicators possible under the other 16 SDGs and it’s up to each community and its residents to decide which targets are most important to them and what they can do to work towards their chosen objectives collectively. Each city or region ‘localizes’ the goals that are important to them and chooses the projects that will help them achieve their goals.

Sustainable action at home
Winnipeg is establishing itself as a leading city in its commitment to sustainability as the first Canadian city to submit a voluntary local review (VLR) of its progress to the UN. A collaborative of stakeholders led by the United Way is using the Peg Indicator Evaluation Framework, which is a measurement system developed by the International Institute for Sustainable Development to report on the state of the City on sustainability.

The City of Winnipeg’s VLR identifies the following improvements and ongoing challenges:

  1. Ten per cent of Winnipeggers are living in poverty.
  2. Food bank use has increased 19 per cent over the last five years and increased 30 per cent over the pandemic.
  3. Life expectancy is improving.
  4. More students are completing high school, but achievement depends on neighbourhoods.
  5. Unemployment rate has not changed significantly (except during the pandemic), but participation rates have declined.
  6. Housing prices (as in other jurisdictions) have increased 39 per cent, but this is low compared to a 67 per cent increase across Canada. Housing starts do not support affordability needs. Density is still a problem.
  7. Income differential between high to low continues to increase.
  8. Public transportation use has slightly increased (except during the pandemic).
  9. Residential waste to landfill had improved until the pandemic.
  10. Crime in two neighbourhoods (Point Douglas and downtown) has continued to increase over time.

“The voluntary local review performed by the City identifies progress made over time in several important indicators of sustainability or wellbeing. What it does not identify are the goals that the City wishes to accomplish. As we know, without goals it is difficult to plan strategically and collectively how you meet outcomes. The City of Winnipeg has accomplished what many have not to date, and it is commendable, but it is a first step that needs to be followed up with a comprehensive plan of action that integrates stakeholders across the community into a common vision and plan of implementation,” says Albert.

“As an individual citizen, I think the important indicators for Winnipeg are: homelessness, hunger, equity and inequality, safety, and of course how we contribute to environmental sustainability. But these are my personal views from living here. Others might say that we need to work on different things, and we should have more debate on what is core to making our city more resilient and sustainable,” says Albert. “Probably almost every goal stated in the UN SDGs is important to us, but we may have to put some aside for a time to proceed and make significant improvements in some areas first.”

Making it happen
Cities cannot do this alone. Leaders from all levels of government, along with businesses and citizens must play their part.

While it’s important for business leaders to include sustainability and resilience topics as part of their own strategic plans, it’s also vital to look outside the company and contribute to the shared visions and implementation of their community’s plans. A healthy city helps to attract talent, reduce risks and promote growth for businesses.

“We need the leadership of our businesses in helping to set direction and contribute to action plans,” says Albert. “What we need is for businesses to help decide which goals will be worked on in sequence in their communities (take a larger voice in community direction), which projects are important, how they can help (focusing donations to a shared vision, for example) and providing talent to accomplish the goals.”

Working together is the best way to move forward.
“We have to acknowledge that we cannot control the volatile and uncertain environment that we live in and this forces us to change, but we can work better together to minimize threats and accomplish synergistic results. These wicked problems that many of our cities face are grand challenges that can be solved collaboratively. There are resource and governance problems, for sure, but with collective will, we can do more together than we can in our individual silos. We need to adopt a systems perspective rather than focusing on individual parts of our grand challenges,” says Albert.


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