Sustainable Cities™

Arun Jain: It’s all about behaviour

In the interview Arun Jain talks about the qualities that characterize a sustainable city, the challenges and the most promising initiatives that would make the living in cities more sustainable.

Q: What are the three qualities that should characterize a sustainable city?

'Resilience' means 'how do you plan for uncertainty'. Not many of us are actually using planning methodology to tell us about uncertainty. We tend to do planning to avoid uncertainty, when in fact we should be embracing uncertainty and using plans or methods to create the future, and saying if I didn't know anything about the future, what kind of city would I want anyway? Rather than being too obsessive about predicting the future, we should try to create ideal cities that are accumulative over time. And in doing so we actually stand a better chance of dealing with the unknown and uncertainty.

'Balance' is about being proportional in terms of how much emphasis we put on what. So if it is infrastructure, then we have to weigh that infrastructure according to if a greater good coming out from there? Should you put in a road, or would you be better off putting in bycycles, or finding ways of creating compactness?

Strategic focus
The issue of strategic priorities is an extension of the previous one about balance, where you have to ask; if I only have so much, what would I do with it in the best possible way? Typically, plans for cities have always been highly aspirational, and that's a problem. We have to get a lot more focus on the question; if there are only a few things that matter, what would they be? When you have that answer, then you try to channel all possible resources to make them really leap the issue of quality of life for people in cities.

Q: What are the challenges that top the to-do list in cities around the world?

We have to rethink housing and community. The way we live and the issue of affordability. The whole issue of how much do I really need versus the issue of how much do I really want. If you look at it from a meta-sustainability perspective, there is no substitute for not consuming at all.

Q: What are the most promising initiatives that would make living in cities more sustainable?

I actually tend to think that there is not much that cities can do at the functional level. But there is a lot they can do to position themselves better to deal with the changes that are surely upon us. Cities tend to be better at reacting than they are being proactive. I haven't seen any initiatives out there that really address the core of the problem. In the end, it's all about behaviour, it's not about technology. It's about rationalizing your existing level of consumption. I think it's good, all the initiatives cities have to do more with less, being environmentally sensitive at the same time. I think that by the end of the day it is us, our behaviour and our attitude, and the fact that we live in a society where we define our lifestyle and our meaning of life more on what we want than on what we need.

About Arun Jain


Arun Jain is an urban designer with over 25 years of international experience in practice and academia. Most recently he was Portland, Oregon's first Chief Urban Designer, a position he held for six years. Professionally and as a consultant of many years, Arun works across a wide range of scales, geographies and cultural landscapes around the world. From small nation level decision making tools to new towns to main streets, his approach considers context and integration to foster uniqueness and counter uncertainty. He is also an Adjunct Associate professor at the University of Oregon's urban architecture program in Portland. Earlier he taught for over 10 years at the University of California, Berkeley.

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014