The success of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development depends on the effective collaboration of all relevant actors. As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) notes in its report on theterritorial approach to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations, cities and regions play a critical role in their implementation and, as such, they should embrace their full potential. Therefore, it is of crucial importance for cities and their officials to make a swift move from theory to practice as part of city development policies and strategies.
What Are the Sustainable Development Goals?
The Sustainable Development Goals constitute the core of the Agenda 2030, which was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. They are a major step forward from the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and are founded on five key pillars: people, planet, prosperity, peace, and, perhaps most importantly, partnership, without which global advancement and development would be impossible due to the high levels of globalization and interdependence today. The SDGs differ greatly from their predecessors, as, first and foremost, they put society and people on the front page. The idea of these goals is to adopt a bottom-up approach to development. From healthcare and education, through green energy, consumption, production, and strong institutions, ending with life on water, climate action, and equality, the 17 goals, each with specific targets and indicators measuring progress, clearly show how and why development must comprehensively address societal, environmental, and economic needs. Simply put, contrary to the MDGs, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals do not focus on governments and leaders, but on people.
According to the yearly report “Sustainable Development Index”, Poland ranks 15th worldwide (out of 193 UN member states) today in terms of progress in achieving the targets set out in Agenda 2030, leaving behind economic superpowers such as Japan (#18), Canada (#21), or the United States (#32). Poland has already achieved SDG 1 (no poverty) and SDG 15 (life on land) and is “on track” or “moderately improving” to achieve SDGs 3, 4, 6, 8, and 16, which, broadly speaking, refer to healthcare, education, clean water, economic growth, and strong institutions. However, our country is lagging in terms of SDGs 7 (affordable and clean energy), 13 (climate action), 14 (life on water), and 17 (partnerships for the goals). In short, much progress has been achieved, but there is still much to be done, and the clock to 2030 is ticking.
SDG 11: What Is it and Why Is it Important?
Sustainable development, widely defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development / Brundtland Commission 1987) may be seen as one way of adapting and alleviating negative consequences; ensuring better future provisions in cities. Sustainable cities can therefore be defined as those that are governed in a way that ensures a high quality of life and access to all the needs of its inhabitants without negatively impacting the needs of future generations and posing a threat to the natural environment.
Several key areas of sustainable city development can be identified as part of SDG 11, for example, improving air quality to “reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities” (UN 2015) and “providing access to safe, affordable, accessible, and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport” (UN 2015). Cities that strive to be sustainable must guarantee the equal interplay of environmental, social, and economic spheres and realize that “balancing these three basic factors needs an integrated decision-making process in which citizens’ participation has a fundamental role in sustainability objectives achievement” (Soltani & Sharifi 2012: 123).
Cities – What is the Fuss About?
Today, around 55% of the world’s population living in cities and urban settlements is “responsible for 60–80% of global energy consumption and they account for 75% of global CO2 emissions” (Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development 2016: 6). This creates a significant burden for urban centers, which must create policies combining economic growth and progressive urbanization with environmental protection. As Höjer & Wangel argue, “sustainable urban development has become a prerequisite for sustainable development” (2015: 335). Cities and urban settlements are undoubtedly the main enactors of sustainable development policies, particularly those in the sphere of education (SG 4), healthcare (SDG 3), industry & infrastructure (SDG 9), or climate action (SDG 13). Perhaps one sustainable development goal that brings all of this together is SDG 11, which focuses on “making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” (UN 2015). To be more specific, there are three most prevalent areas of activity and concern in public discourse in regard to making cities sustainable. They include the reduction of air pollution, the guarantee of access to safe and affordable public transportation, and the so-called green infrastructure. According to Girardet & Deelstra, “cities of the 21st century are where human destiny will be played out, and where the future of the biosphere will be determined” (2000: 43), which highlights the importance of healthy sustainable urban development and the role of cities in today’s world.
Practical Examples and Success Stories from Poland
As mentioned in the introduction, it is important to move from theory to practice and learn from previous projects. While, naturally, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, meaning that one project can be taken from city A and implemented without changes or difficulties in city B, the previous experiences can be a source of inspiration for policymakers. On this note, it is important that even if one was to transport an idea from one place to another, such a scenario would not be effective. If an initiative is to be successful, it has to consider the external environment (political, social, economic, and environmental factors are just a few to be named) which, as we know, is very different in, for instance, Warsaw, in comparison with Vienna, Melbourne, or Bogota.
*The examples below are based on the written responses provided by 18 municipalities in Poland as part of the report by the United Nations Association Poland “Sustainable development of cities in Poland: from theory to practice” published in early 2021.
Wrocław and Łódź – Blue and Green Infrastructure at the Forefront of Sustainability
As we know, there is no life without water. Cities are no different, which is why Wrocław is very much focused on blue infrastructure, from local educational activities and initiatives to large-scale investments. Naturally, the city is constantly investing in making tap water increasingly available and safe for citizens, but that is not all. In 2019, the project “I like rain” was implemented in selected schools in the city in cooperation with a non-governmental organization. This was an opportunity for educational meetings with young Warsaw residents to familiarize them with rainwater management and its methods. As part of the workshops, the children built rain gardens in 10 schools. The aim was to encourage other city residents to create ecosystems in their gardens and to show that building one is not that complicated. These activities demonstrate a hands-on approach to education.
Greenery in cities is as important as modernized buildings, accessible and eco-friendly public transport, or safe and affordable housing. Wrocław’s “Gray to green” (PL: Szare na Zielone) aims to transform old, gray, and concrete areas surrounding schools or nurseries into attractive green areas that students can use. This project is part of a wide program aimed to adapt the city to the changing climate and environment, highlighting that the authorities are aware of the need for a comprehensive approach to the issue, given its high level of interdependence and complexity. The initiative also promotes biodiversity and efficient rainwater management. Schools are encouraged not only to ‘unseal’ concrete courtyards but also to enrich development projects with elements of blue and green infrastructure, such as rain gardens, flower meadows, creepers on fences creating natural green walls, or rainwater barrels that, with the help of children, can then be used to water the garden. Small vegetable gardens are becoming increasingly popular, as they play an educational role in the field of healthy eating. To be more specific, in one kindergarten in the city, humus was used to fertilize the area and create a biologically active layer. The establishment is located in an area elevated one meter above, with some remains of the building underneath. The redesigned green area is innovatively irrigated, applying an underground system that uses rainwater from the roof of the building.
Of course, when talking about green infrastructure, one must not forget the immense role of public parks and forests. The Od:Nowa Park Helenów project in Łódź, the third biggest city in Poland in terms of population size, aims to restore the grandeur of this historic park. The main goal, in addition to creating an attractive recreational location for citizens and tourists alike, is to design a comprehensive landscape with hiking and cycling trails. It is to include the revalorization of the area in the Sokołówka valley, including the restoration of the historic Mickiewicz Park, thus emphasizing the natural values of the river valley, creating leisure friendly infrastructure, as well as improving the quality and wide availability of public spaces and green areas in the city. An essential aspect of the initiative is also the recovery of Sokołówka, creating a friendly space for residents and tourists by this river, which at present flows along an unattractive riverbed.
Opole – Looking at Sustainability Through the Social Lens
Creating a just, solidary, and mutually respectful society is as important as infrastructural projects. Therefore, the City of Opole looks at sustainable development very much through the lens of society. The Re-start center in the city center implements a comprehensive program of social and professional reintegration. As part of the project, new places for professional reintegration and social activation were created in the Social Integration Club, which operates at the Municipal Family Support Center. Support is provided to the unemployed, in particular those with a long history of unemployment, who are covered, inter alia, by an internship program, psychosocial, vocational, and legal counseling. With the substantive support of vocational instructors, participants get to know how to perform specific jobs, and social workers strengthen their activity and independence in life. They learn to perform minor carpentry, upholstery, and locksmith repairs, as well as to tailor modifications for Opole residents at risk of social exclusion. Instructors indicate that the classes help participants integrate and change their behavior, attitudes, or habits. “At the beginning of the project there were helplessness, confusion, and uncertainty about their future, then after several months of work they changed a lot.”
As indicated by one of the instructors, active participation in vocational reintegration classes increased their willingness to continue working also after the program and contributed to their better well-being. They also helped make their professional dreams come true and, as was noticed, gave participants self-confidence, improved their skills, and increased self-esteem. Workshops as part of the program take place in renovated and redesigned buildings adapted by the city, which had been unused for a long time before the project started.
Olsztyn: Leading the Way to Sustainable Transport
As some say, transport is the heart and soul of a city, or at least one of the key areas, which cities should prioritize as they develop. As the first city in Poland, Olsztyn took up the challenge to restore an effective, modern, low-emission means of public transport – the tram. In recent years, eleven kilometers of tracks and a depot were built, and 15 modern Solaris trams were purchased and delivered to the city. Three new tramlines were also constructed connecting large housing complexes in the south of the city and the university area with the city center and the train station. The project also included solutions to facilitate transport management, an electronic ticket sales system with the Olsztyn City Card, a network of ticket machines, electronic passenger information at bus stops and buses, as well as bus lanes. The layout of this means of transport has also been completely reformulated and redirected, with the lines reorganized so that they complement the trams.
The success of the project is clear, as a significant increase in the number of passengers in public transport was observed in Olsztyn. The city is not stopping there, and work is currently underway to construct more kilometers of tram lines for two new lines that supplement the existing network, in addition to the expansion and construction of new bus lanes, bicycle paths, and a comprehensive interchange junction on the High Gate (PL: Wysoka Brama) leading to the Old Town.
Legnica – History, and Culture as Elements of Sustainability
Legnica, a city of roughly one hundred thousand inhabitants in southwest Poland, also implements projects in the fields of sustainable transport, reducing air pollution, or investing in green areas. However, as one of few cities in the country, it has also highlighted culture and history as one of its priorities, under SDG 11 target 11.4, which reads “strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.”
One of the key projects in this area is the highly invested revitalization of the palm house (PL: palmiarnia), which began in August 2021. It is part of a larger initiative to revitalize Legnica’s public park and create an area that combines education, science, leisure, and recreation. In line with this, in 2018 the city also began the renovation of the former summer theater, also located in the park, where the municipal Center for Culture, Science, and Education will be established. The Witelon Center is another interesting initiative – it promotes, among young people, the fields of study important to the development of the city and the region and educates visitors in the latest achievements of science and technology. The facility will also be a place combining culture, science, and education; it will serve as a meeting place for people with an innovative and creative view of the world, including people from science and business.
To highlight the historical significance of its buildings and residences, Legnica undertook the renovation of the historic 18th-century building of the Knight’s Academy (PL: Akademia Rycerska), which was occupied by the Soviet army after World War II. The renovation lasted 38 years, was completed in 2016, and consumed 60 million PLN from the city’s funds. Today, it serves as a center of culture and science, it also houses the civil registry office (PL: Urząd Stanu Cywilnego). This greatly shows how history can be used to build the future.
Cities around the world differ in size, population, budget, environment, politics, and practically every other aspect. What does or, rather, what should bring them all together is the quest for sustainable development to benefit their citizens today and tomorrow. The world we live in is constantly faced with challenges and problems that will not change soon, as the world’s population is expected to exceed 9.6 billion in 2050. Therefore, it is evident that we must establish better relations both with ourselves and our planet. Cities can do exactly that, and that is why there is an ever-growing need for cities to be more sustainable in terms of production, consumption, environmental protection, and ensuring adequate quality of life for its citizens. We should learn from best practices, exchange views, resources, and engage in debate and dialogue. Only then will we achieve our ambitious goals and objectives.
Adam Dziedzic – President of the Management Board of UNAP since 2018. A graduate of Tilburg University in the Netherlands – MSc Organization Studies and BSc Global Management of Social Issues. Member of the National Development Council – Youth Council under the President of the Republic of Poland and the World Urban Forum Council 11.
He mainly specializes in the issues of sustainable development, international relations and the functioning of international organizations. He gained professional experience, among others in the Foundation Heinrich Boll and the EY Academy of Business. He has been involved in the subject of the United Nations for 10 years – in the years 2013-2018 he has repeatedly coordinated a number of projects in the field of the UN 2030 Agenda and the simulation of UN sessions. He is also a member of the expert team on climate change at the Nowa Nadzieja think tank.