Sustainable Cities™

Barbara Southworth: Creating compact communities

Sustainability starts with people and a truly sustainable city will put people first, says Barbara Southworth. Expanding the notion of the city as an ecosystem, a sustainable city is one in which ecological utility systems, transport systems and social and economic systems operate as an optimal whole.

Barbara Southworth responded to the Ecotopedia enquete via e-mail from Cape Town, South Africa, on 10th August 2008.


…What are the qualities that should characterize a sustainable city?

Balanced and integrated urban systems should feature at the core of a sustainable city. Expanding the notion of the city as an ecosystem, a sustainable city is one in which ecological, utility, transport, social, economic systems, and so on, operate as an optimal whole with none of them dominating or compromising another. We all know by now that we cannot consume more than we use or can replace - we want to reduce the ecological footprints of our resource hungry cities.

Thinking in terms of systems such as river systems, but also street, or neighbourhood, or regional economic systems allows us to consider these in more integrated and holistic ways than is typical of conventional, fragmented or sector based approaches. While most contemporary cities would struggle to achieve total equilibrium, a systemic approach can move cities onto a more sustainable path by encouraging a focus on closing cycles through recycling and reuse and building resilience through reducing and localizing consumption of land, energy, water and food.

In order to move towards balance, it is important to consider these urban systems on all scales from the regional to the level of a single public space or building.

Although it is continually debated, I think that the imperatives of peak oil and resource conservation leave us no choice but to proactively manage urban growth to contain sprawl and increase densities, promoting high-quality, compact, integrated and mixed-use development built around vibrant public spaces, pedestrian accessibility, cycling and public transport. An essential component of compact urban form is a high-quality public space system and natural environment where access to nature balances the intensity of higher densities as well as performing important environmental services such as storm-water management, air purification and even food production.

Sustainable technologies and building practices are also important, starting with a focus on getting back to the basics, such as achieving energy efficiency through good design and proper orientation, lowering ecological footprints through the use of local materials and technologies. High-tech innovation and new technologies undoubtedly have an important role to play but in an energy-depleted world, cities that can de-link from their dependence on these are likely to be more resilient. I am disturbed by the hype around so-called green buildings often considered in isolation from their urban or regional contexts. I am not suggesting that we revert to some sort of pre-industrial idyll, but that we do not forget some of the fundamentals of good design that cost nothing but a bit of intelligence.

Ultimately, sustainability starts with people and a truly sustainable city will put people first - prioritising collective needs over individual needs and long-term gains over short-term gains. Such proactive choices require bold leadership, which in turn is founded on a commitment to empowerment and inclusion and real participation in decision-making, development and management of the city.


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

Cities should be focusing on building resilience in the face of massive current, and imminent, global changes resulting from climate change, peak oil and associated economic and political turbulence. These challenges will place pressure on cities to reconceptualise their systems, spatial form and socio-economic processes. Cities in developing countries are more vulnerable to these economic and climatic shocks especially in the face of increased global competition, poverty and class conflict and will increasingly make up the bulk of the urbanized world, projected to reach 85% by 2030.

The UN Population Report published in 2007 points out that "what happens in the cities of the less developed world in the coming years will shape prospects for global economic growth, poverty alleviation, population stabilization, environmental sustainability and, ultimately, the exercise of human rights". Clearly then, the challenges of these cities are of global concern.

Building resilience to the impacts of climate change will involve dealing with food security in cities and regions already challenged by the impacts of global food production and consumption patterns, crop failures and rising food prices. Changing aspirations in gigantic economies such as China and India are heightening these impacts. A central challenge is to accommodate urban agriculture and protect agricultural land from the onslaught of rapid urbanization. Also related to climate change, coastal cities face the challenge of planning for and mitigating the risks of sea-level rise and other ecological disasters.

The challenges faced by cities are not just physical but also social and political. If cities are to simply survive, let alone be liveable, we all need to change our behaviours and adjust our aspirations - we all need to learn to use less and demand less. I think that we are on such an enormous tipping point that we are not going to be able to engineer clever technologies to avoid changing our behaviours and will have to be willing to reduce our consumption, move less, waste less and reuse more.

In developing countries and small pockets within the great cities of the developed world, poverty and, social and economic exclusion is increasing. Unless these are addressed, economic and social exclusion, poverty and growing disparities at global, regional and city levels are likely to undermine technological and planning progress towards sustainability in cities.

… What are the most promising initiatives/ideas/solutions/projects that would make living in cities more sustainable?

Emerging from a decades-long credibility crisis, strategic, spatial planning is now widely accepted as essential to move cities onto a more sustainable path. The systems and utility services needed to sustain large cities and rapid urbanization - or decline - are extensive, expensive and long-term in the planning and implementation. Poor choices in technology, location and inadequate integration between systems can close off possibilities for reducing resource use, environmental degradation or improving liveability. A holistic approach and long-term perspective, supported by proactive urban management - in other words - integrated planning, is increasingly being rediscovered in cities around the world.

Many cities and city governments are collaborating to plan for and manage systems that extend beyond their geographic boundaries and jurisdiction and undertaking regional, long-term strategic planning to increase regional economic sustainability through coordinated and proactive management of the systems and resources of urban regions. International organizations, like the OECD and Cities Plus Network facilitate collaboration and shared learning between cities working to develop these broader, long-term plans. These initiatives recognize the necessity of coordinated thinking and bold leadership in piloting urban growth, infrastructure and development, particularly with respect to utility infrastructure such as water and waste, transport networks and land use, as essential to secure sustainable outcomes.

A second trend towards sustainable cities relates to urban transport systems. Forward thinking cities have been moving away from car dependence towards public transport as the dominant mode of movement. Cities in developing countries are already far less car dependent - and therefore less resource intensive - than cities in the developed world with on average 50% of trips being on foot or some form of non-motorised transport. Although this has largely been a consequence of necessity and lack of economic means, cities such as Curitiba, Bogota and Delhi have actively sought to promote pedestrian movement, cycling and public transport. Here, this shift has been planned and integrated with broader urban planning and management to reduce the need to move people and goods by increasing urban densities and localizing production and consumption.

Copenhagen and cities across the Netherlands have long promoted cycling, building and improving pedestrian and cycle systems and public spaces. Outside of Europe, non-motorised transport initiatives are gaining momentum, inspired by Curitiba and Bogota, cities in Asia and Africa are following suit.

The promotion of mixed-use and compact urban form supported by quality public space are not new concepts within urban design thinking but these ideas are at last gaining real purchase through the sustainability agenda. Reclaiming and remaking public space has gained impressive momentum in recent years, with the recognition that this is an essential element of a more urban model of settlement. Barcelona's 100 spaces program set a trend that has captured the imagination of cities worldwide and seen public space programs emerge in Copenhagen, London, New York, Melbourne, Bogota and many others. In Cape Town, we have been piloting public space projects as a catalyst for urban transformation in the shack settlements and townships of the city through our 9-year long 'Dignified Places Program'.

And finally, while 'greenwashing' hype abounds, exciting innovation in the arena of 'green building' is occurring all over the world. Again, these ideas are not new, with notions of passive cooling and heating and appropriate materials being promoted for many decades. What is important is that they are becoming mainstreamed into building practices with many countries setting new green building codes and by-laws. In developing cities, where urban management is less comprehensive and by-laws either non-existent or ineffective, our opportunity is to rediscover and reinvent traditional building methods and materials that are often inherently low energy and have a low ecological footprint as a basis for a sustainable and, I think, more meaningful and interesting cities.

About Barbara Southworth

Barbara Southworth.jpgBarbara Southworth is an architect and urban designer and the managing director of City Think Space, an urban design and city planning practice in Cape Town, South Africa. She graduated from the University of Natal with a degree in architecture in 1991 and then went on to obtain a masters degree in Urban Design & City Planning from the University of Cape Town in 1997. She has worked as an architect and urban designer in the private sector in Britain and South Africa. She worked in the public sector for 9 years and held the post of Director of Spatial Planning & Urban Design for the City of Cape Town before setting up City Think Space in 2007. She has also taught as a contract lecturer and worked as studio master on the Urban Design Planning and Landscape masters programme at the University of Cape Town. She was a founding member of the Urban Design Institute of South Africa and currently serves as chairman. For her role in initiating and coordinating the Dignified Places Programme, Barbara was awarded the 2003 Ralph Erskine Prize, in recognition of architects whose work has benefited the underprivileged of the world. Under her leadership, the City of Cape Town's Urban Design Branch won joint first prize for the Africa region in the Union of lnternational Architect's 2004 Celebration of Cities Competition.


  • "Future Cape Town: An Argument for the Long Term Spatial Development of Cape Town", published in the City of Cape Town publication (together with Stephen Boshoff and the departmental project team) 2006
  • "Public Space in Developing Countries: The City of Cape Town's Dignified Places Programme"; published in Lotus International, 2005
  • "Urban Design in Action: The City of Cape Town's Dignified Places Programme - implementation of new public spaces towards integration and urban regeneration in South Africa" published in Urban Design International, 2003.
  • "The Ingulube Drive Project and the Significance of Public Space in Urban Renewal" published in the EarthyearEnvironmental Journal, Edition 23, Volume 2, 2001

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014