Rethinking Cities to Achieve Sustainability for all

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By Dr. Yasemin Afacan

In 2015, United Nations (UN) had adopted the 2030 agenda for a fifteen-year plan. This agenda is based on the idea of ‘no one is leaving behind’ and is comprised of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These SDGs are defined as a universal call to protect the planet and improve health and well-being. As social diversity and climate change threaten all of us, there is an urgent call for action to improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth.

Although the year 2020-2030 was declared as the decade to achieve these goals, the unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic had an intense and long-lasting effect on the successful implementation of these SDGs.

So, what should we do? Are we ready for the next pandemic? 

The director of Raoul Wallenberg Institute, Morten Kjaerum, puts the human rights city at the center of green solutions to achieve sustainable development. “Human rights cities harness the strategic position of the local level to address such issues. It is the means to design better policies and empower individuals by guaranteeing that international human rights standards are translated to the local level”. 

York in the United Kingdom; Eugene in the United States; Jakarta in Indonesia; Barcelona, in Spain; Rosario in Argentina; Gwangju in South Korea; and Lund in Sweden are the cities worldwide that have been already taking action for inclusivity, equality, climate resilience. Rosario in Argentina is the first human right city.

A human rights city has the power to shape future generations, because it has the power to change each of us while experiencing the urban environments. Really, how? So, how to become a human rights city to make urbanization sustainable? These are the questions we as designers, planners, and politicians should find answers.

Sustainable development needs to go beyond the goal definitions to rethink cities to achieve sustainability and inclusivity for all. Architects and planners should focus on the importance of healthy, equitable, sustainable, and climate-resilient cities to accommodate diverse needs, expectations, and demands for all. When we focus on the concepts of ‘streets for life’ developed by Burton and Mitchell through their ongoing research at the Wellbeing in Sustainable Environments Research Unit at Warwick University, there are six following key principles to conceptualize Human Right Cities: Familiarity, Legibility, Distinctiveness, Accessibility, Comfort, and Safety (Figure 1). The physical configuration of the urban environment as an essential source of social exclusion is a mechanism for achieving the goals of streets for life and enabling cities to be as sustainable as possible.

Six key principles of ‘Streets for Life’ concept to conceptualize Human Right Cities:
Familiarity, Legibility, Distinctiveness, Accessibility, Comfort and Safety. Credit: Yasemin Afacan.


Familiarity is the extent to which urban environments are easily recognizable and understandable by older adults. According to Rob Imrie, a well-known urban sociology professor, the loss of familiar street markers or additions of new ones cause us to feel vulnerable in cities. Familiar urban environments not only help to reduce confusion but also maintain human independence and influence their physical activity. Architects and planners should consider ease of recognition in street layout, alternative routes, location of services, pedestrian crossings, and signs.

Legibility is defined as the provision of accurate and intuitively understandable directional guidance with minimum confusion. Kevin Lynch, a well-known American urban planner, described the qualities of a good urban design as legible focal points for orientation, edges, and places of congregation. Maps, directions, signs, and green environmental features assist older adults, disabled people or pregnant women, and reduce the negative impact of mass urbanization in cities and improve the quality of life for all. 

Distinctiveness is the inevitable principle for a human rights city to reflect the local character and give distinct identity by a variety of spaces- such as high-rise buildings, parks, historic structures, natural colors, and local materials. Distinctive street characteristics full of activities attract walkability, which is very popular as a ‘green’ type of transportation. All people, regardless of ability and age, are more likely to walk along streets with pavements, front gardens, and shops rather than the streets surrounded by blind walls. Walkability as the key component of a human rights city is the result of streets for life and influences sustainable development in economic, social, and environmental terms.

Accessibility enables to visit, reach, use and access all the city facilities regardless of ability and age. According to Gabriel & Bowling, one of the central dimensions of quality in later life is offering access to facilities and services in a neighborhood. Accessibility does not only facilitate independence but also comfort in mobility. Sustainable development could not work without respecting for all citizen rights. It is a cross-sectoral approach so all the resources and potential of a city should be taken into account by diverse stakeholders when planning and designing an urban area.

Today, comfort is inevitable in every aspect of quality of life. Comfort in sustainable development is the ease of use of a city and the ability to visit urban environments without physical or mental discomposure. Comfort in a human rights city could be associated with a calm and welcoming feeling. As we all know, close destinations places to stop and rest, public seating, and toilets make us comfortable.

Safety is critical if we want to experience cities without fear of falling, attack, and run over. This last principle is the result of the previous five criteria. If a city is familiar, legible, distinctive, accessible and comfortable, then it is obvious that the city is safe.

We should call for a sustainable shift in attitudes to designing future urbanization. We have to understand the role of long-term sustainable planning strategies to shape our future. These six principles as proposed by Burton and Mitchell support sustainable urbanization and play key roles in the inclusive engagement of all people in human rights cities. They should be considered for the possible challenges arising from any pandemics and applied in all municipal decisions for future generations.

About the author: Dr. Afacan is the department chair in the Interior Architecture and Environmental Design, faculty member in Neuroscience Graduate Program, vice director of Graduate School of Economics and Social Sciences in Bilkent University, Turkey. She has published more than 25 papers on sustainable built environments and age-friendly environments in reputable journals, won outstanding young scientist awards and serves as a board member of International Society of Gerontechnology (ISG).