Urban planning — linchpin for sustainable urban development?

"If you look at the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, I come across most of them when I do city planning," says ISOCARP vice-president Martin Dubbeling. (Connecting Cities)

Tackling any one of the United Nations’ ambitious Sustainable Development Goals, much less all 17, is a gargantuan task.

But ask planner Martin Dubbeling, and he thinks his profession has many of the answers. Vice-president of the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP), the Dutch planning consultant has been an on-the-ground adviser for UN-Habitat’s urban planning missions in challenging environments such as Gaza, Kabul, Nairobi and the West Bank. He also has worked extensively throughout China and his native Netherlands.

His career experience has made him a forceful advocate for the role of planners in delivering on the goals, known as the SDGs. Citiscope’s Gregory Scruggs spoke to Dubbeling in March from his home in the Netherlands. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Gregory Scruggs: At a keynote address to the U. N. Economic Commission for Europe, you argued that there is no discipline other than planning that is positioned to implement all 17 SDGs. What professional experience gives you that confidence?

Martin Dubbeling: If you look at the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, I come across most of them when I do city planning. In the hard sense, it is infrastructure, it is buildings, it has to do with water, it has to do with energy. But also in a soft sense, you have to deal with society: You’re dealing with economy. You’re dealing with making safe cities for children, women and vulnerable groups.

Most of the planners or other peoples that are involved in sustainable cities just say, “Well, Sustainable Development Goal Number 11 [on sustainable cities] — that is ours. And all the other 16 development goals are for the others to solve.” But I do not think that is the case. To all those people responsible for the administration, are they part of strong institutions or are they part of a partnership for the goals?

[See: Need to create an urban planning agency? Here’s how — and why.]

On the other hand, there are 17 development goals — why 17 and not 18, why not 20? Where’s mobility, which is very important for urban development and any urban transition.

Q: There’s a target on mobility, but it’s a sub-point.

“It’s funny, really — although cities are developing at a rapid space, the number of people that are involved in city planning is very small.”

A: Yeah, it’s a sub-point, and I think mobility is so much more important. It affects the way the city develops, the way that cities are used, the way self-driving cars will change cities and thus how society will change. There’s so much development in that area that it is highly recommended, if not paramount, that this is a Sustainable Development Goal in itself. You only have to go to Nairobi: It’s a miracle that a city like Nairobi exists, a very large city without a proper transportation system.

Q: Doing work on the ground, what have you learned about the big picture of planning’s contributions to sustainable development?

A: What is the takeaway? The lesson is about more restraint. I was in Afghanistan for a one-week mission, for instance, and they wanted to talk with me about building a new Kabul of another 4 million people. And I was asking them: “Where do you get water from? Where do you get electricity from?” And they didn’t have a clue. I told them when you come to build a new city, you should have an idea about your present city.

It is very difficult for them to understand and to analyze and to interfere in the existing city. They automatically go to plan B — and that is building a new city. But I told them, “I think you should focus on your present city first before you go to the next one, because you are stacking disaster upon disaster.” So the takeaway is: Start with analysis first.

[See: Developing countries face a catastrophic lack of urban planning capacity]

And not only that — you can start with very simple things by, for instance, making public space where no cars can go. Kabul is very unhealthy, very dirty, and I told them to clean up their city first. Clean up the river first — use that river, clean the parks, plant more trees. Make it more comfortable. Make it more liveable for the city itself.

And they simply told me, “Yes, yes, yes. But we are the city of Kabul, and the river is from the government.” And, “Yes, yes, yes. Public space is not from the municipality — it is from the government.” As a city, they were dependent on other layers of government. For them, it’s very difficult to take that responsibility of the city.

I agree with [UN-Habitat executive director] Joan Clos that the rules of the game should be changed. And in a way, the sustainable development cause does not help us when we’re only repeating the goals as a kind of mantra. [During the presentation in Geneva] and last year’s World Cities Day forum in Xiamen, all of the speakers were more or less repeating each other: “The Sustainable Development Goals are very important for our cities. But what they really said was, “We focus on Goal 11, and we are not much interested in the other SDGs.”

[See: African cities urged to take holistic approach to urban planning]

You can only achieve sustainability when you do it in a comprehensive way. [Urban sustainability] needs to be connected with green, with waste, with infrastructure, with public space, with identity. You cannot say, “Well, I am only dealing with water.”

Q: So if city planners are a key profession in this context, can you briefly outline ISOCARP’s strategy for helping the world deliver on the SDGs?

A: No, we don’t really have a strategy for the SDGs. We are much more involved in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. Our primary role is to connect with and support planners in other cities, to exchange knowledge and experience, and help each other with making better cities and making cities better.

“We, as planners, need to do a lot more to get back the confidence of politicians, of cities — that we can really contribute to improving cities. And that also has to do with the spending of public money.”

When is come to the SDGs, I feel that we as city and regional planners have a profound responsibility in making cities more liveable, inclusive and sustainable. Twenty years ago, we didn’t think of clean air from an urban perspective, but now it is a very important point in planning. Likewise, now climate change is affecting cities, so it is paramount to include rainwater storage in the urban fabric.

As city planners, we are more like sponges. Every decade new elements and new themes in cities arise, and we have to think about them how to include them in urban planning — for instance, the way people use the Internet and Wi-Fi in cities, and cell phones nowadays. What does this mean for the city? Are we going to use the city differently? I am convinced that we do need to plan cities differently. Here in the Netherlands, we turn retail spaces into other functions as a large and increasing proportion of shopping is done online.

In the past, city planners maybe were the big visionaries, making big plans for big cities. But now they are more trend watchers, offering advice on how cities can develop on their own. Because cities, especially in China and Africa, are developing so rapidly that it is almost impossible to plan those cities. You can only interfere or improve cities on a smaller scale.

[See: In Uganda’s small but fast-growing cities, ‘one planner is not enough’]

I noticed that city planners get the blame for bad living conditions, traffic congestions and almost everything else that goes wrong in cities. The point is that we, as planners, need to do a lot more to get back the confidence of politicians, of cities — that we can really contribute to improving cities and their economies. And that also has to do with the spending and incomes of public money.

Q: Switching topics, what is your perception of UN-Habitat’s ability to be the lead agency for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda? This remains an open question, which is to be addressed by the U. N. system this year.

A: Making strong cities, making competitive cities, making safe cities — it’s not only the responsibility of one city but also the responsibility of the region, the state or even on a national scale. The same can be said of the U. N. I think it would be foolish for UN-Habitat to be the only organization responsible for the New Urban Agenda or even the [cities component of the] Sustainable Development Goals.

[See: The U. N.’s urban agency is seeing record demand — even as its funding plummets]

For a long time, UN-Habitat has been going away from slum repair, slum development, slum upgrading. That is a very wise decision. But in my opinion, UN-Habitat should reinvent itself as UN-Cities.

Q: You think there could be scope for something like a UN-Cities that just takes up that mandate?

A: Yeah, I think so, but they would need a considerable budget to do that. But if UN-Habitat should do that, or another organization, it should reinvent itself and completely focus on cities and city planning. Start up training, start up universities, start up knowledge production, start up comparing cities, et cetera. It’s funny, really — although cities are developing at a rapid space, the number of people that are involved in city planning is very small.

NOTE: This story has updated.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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