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Accueil > Écologie urbaine > Aller vers la ville durable > Local Sustainability 2012 : Taking stock and moving forward

Local Sustainability 2012 : Taking stock and moving forward

The journey towards sustainability begins with a single step and a vision of where to go. Cities across the world have understood that piecemeal action and ad hoc reaction are simply not good enough. Their actions are speeding up in a friendly competition towards ever more ambitious visions and targets. They want to be among the most able to meet the environmental, social, and economic challenges of the 21st Century. Their journeys are marked by commitment, leadership, concerted and participatory processes, and continuous improvements to urban governance and management.

This study is part of ICLEI’s contribution to the international preparatory process for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as the Rio+20 Conference 2012. It focuses on the role of local governments in the last two decades of global action for sustainable development, looking back at achievements and proposing recommendations for the future.

Chapter 1 highlights the importance of the Rio+20 Conference as the twentieth anniversary of Local Agenda 21 and provides an overview of previous studies conducted by ICLEI to monitor its implementation worldwide. Adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro 1992, Local Agenda 21 inspired local governments worldwide to engage in voluntary sustainable development initiatives. The chapter discusses issues related to evaluating local sustainability today and outlines the methodology of this study.

Chapter 2 argues that what has emerged in the last two decades is a global movement of local governments committed to sustainable development and discusses how the notion of Local Agenda 21 has evolved over time.

Chapter 3 outlines a governance-oriented typology of local sustainability processes, based on the main driving forces behind local processes. Five key types of local sustainability processes are described, characterised by the political level and the type of organization that initiated them. They are : Local Government Strategy, Civil Society Initiative, Concerted Action, National Policy and International Cooperation. The potential and limits of different framework conditions are then discussed, in order to contribute to a better understanding of the development of local sustainability processes and distil critical issues for further progress.

Chapter 4 lists main reference frameworks used by the local sustainability movement in order to steer and evaluate local initiatives. The authors distinguish between bottom-up initiatives coming from the local governments themselves and the top-down ones, developed by regional and international organizations to “localize” their strategies.

Chapter 5 looks at changes in terms of how local sustainability has been understood and governed over the last two decades, as well as at the changing role of local governments. Starting from the concept of sustainable development, the authors reflect upon progress in terms of managing local sustainability processes and evolving local priorities, as well as upon the enhanced culture of public participation in sustainable development processes. Finally, the chapter explores the link between decentralization processes and local action for sustainability and moves on to describe the growing importance of local governments as international actors, pointing to their active role and increased recognition in global policy processes, e.g. in the field of climate change and biodiversity.

Chapter 6 offers ten key points that serve both as conclusions and as recommendations for the future, based both on the results of the study and ICLEI’s 20 years of experience in working with local sustainability processes. The chapter presents local governments’ views on the challenges that the global community is facing and their proposed solutions to achieve the future we want.

The study is accompanied by a collection of case studies, published separately as Local Sustainability 2012 : Showcasing Progress - Case studies, which showcases examples of innovative local actions for sustainable development from all over the world. To read the case study collection and find out more about local government activities in preparation for the Rio+20 Conference, visit

12 of the following case studies showcase journeys of selected successful, pioneering cities towards greater sustainability across a selection of themes and regions, and 2 case studies provide an illustration of creating enabling framework conditions through state and national governments for urban development. They show an unfaltering effort to accept and meet today’s and tomorrow’s urban sustainability challenges.

For an urban future in 2050, where two thirds of 9 billion people will be living in urban areas, a doubling of the current urban capacity is required in less than 40 years. The implications of this urbanization cannot be stressed enough. All these people need jobs, food and water, housing, transport, sanitation, and social services. Cities are places for capital investments in infrastructure and business, and people. Urban areas are vulnerable to risks including widening income gaps, under-delivery of social services, adverse climate impacts, disasters, energy, food and water security, and ecosystem degradation. Unmanaged urbanization is an incremental process and calls for an authoritative response to avert an urban crisis. The sustainability of the world hinges upon the sustainability of the urban future.

The sustainable development of cities and communities is paramount. Urban sustainable development requires improving individuals’ living conditions whilst preserving the environment in the short, medium and, above all, long term. The objective is an urban future with economically efficient,socially fair and environmentally sustainable cities. Sustainable cities need to be built through an integrated and holistic approach to planning and decision making including strong local governance ; efficient transportation and communication networks ; greener buildings ; efficient human settlements and service delivery systems ; improved air and water quality ; reduced waste ; productive ecosystems and biodiversity conservation ; improved disaster preparedness and response ; and increased resilience.

The selected case studies were identified and collected through global consultation to illustrate how cities can become more sustainable. 14 cases from six continents were selected from the following countries : Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Iceland, India, Japan, Mexico, and South Africa. The cases portray a broad mix of contemporary themes, and an active and strong involvement of local governments in pioneering greater urban sustainability. Each case focuses on a particular program, initiative, policy or measure.

These selected cities are considered as regional pioneers, who have developed their sustainability agenda over time across political terms and showed consistent ambition, creativity, and courage in stretching the traditional limits of their jurisdictional role and finding progressive new ways of dealing with urban challenges.

The following key urban sustainability sub-themes were chosen :

  • Eco-city master planning and comprehensive city strategies.
  • Governance and service improvements.
  • Low-carbon and renewable energy development.
  • Climate resilience and climate change adaptation.
  • Biodiversity and ecosystem protection and management.
  • Greening of the urban economy and infrastructure.

In Local Sustainability 2012 Case study series : Showcasing progress in local sustainability the presented cases are summaries of the full versions available from ICLEI Case Studies 138-151. This study is complementary to Local Sustainability 2012 Taking Stock and Moving Forwardand provides an overview of the challenges cities responded to, their key achievements, the processes and actors involved, and selected success factors. Addressing immediate or potential environmental challenges is important to keep cities viable and attractive places to live.

The principles identified 20 years ago and formulated in Chapter 28 of the Agenda 21 namely ‘Local Agenda 21’ (LA21) bear great resemblance to the guiding principles underlying the presented cases. Actions are taken within horizontal and vertical governance frameworks that include participatory and stakeholder processes towards holistic instead of isolated approaches. What has become of the guiding principles ? Who are the drivers, enablers and implementers ? Which diversity of approaches exists 20 years after Local Agenda 21 ?

The role of local governments has been continuously changing over the past 20 years, and the selected cases illustrate how local governments can pioneer and, if sufficiently strong, move the sustainability agenda forward as actors, drivers, facilitators, etc. Local governments are especially effective when policies, programs and actions are coordinated and cooperated with other actors and stakeholders.

Worldwide there are tens of thousands of cities and local governments, and it is important to remember that the showcased cities are advanced regional pioneers. Many cities and local governments may be even more advanced in reducing their ecological footprint and increasing their resilience than the study showcases. However, many more, and most likely the very large majority of urban areas, are only at the very beginning of a transformation process towards sustainable urban development.

Showcasing performance of cities still proves to be a major challenge due to the complexity around measures and indicators, and linking these to particular actions. A variety of approaches are being pioneered and more is being documented than before. One example is the ‘carbonn Cities Climate Registry’ to measure and document greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as well as climate mitigation and adaptation actions. However, performance indicators for local action are still missing for most areas and even if available often are not applied due to a lack of staff or expertise. Activities and results still have to be described more often than not without concrete quantitative measures of improvement. Monitoring, evaluating, and further improving approaches to measuring performance remains an important agenda for the future for identifying, reviewing, and designing more ambitious targeted actions.

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