20 October 2021

How to create just, sustainable cities

A few weeks ago, a group of policy designers and action implementers gathered to co-create policy recommendations for just and sustainable cities. This process addressed the key question: how can we act to advance justice and sustainability in our cities?

The current state-of-play
Understanding our context is critical to successful action. To this end, representatives from the European, national, urban, and inter-urban levels exchanged perspectives to agree upon the current state-of-play for sustainable and just cities.

This discussion made the importance of centring local voices imminently clear. As Maria Nikolopoulou, President of the European Economic and Social Committee’s Equality Group, put it: sustainability work will continue facing obstacles unless people on the ground (at the local level) are meaningfully involved in this work.

The culmination of this ‘scene setting’ discussion was to challenge all city-makers to rethink sustainability and policy-development processes in order to centre social justice.

How to act in this context
It is difficult to define how we ‘can’ and ‘should’ act to foster more just and sustainable cities. Action can take many forms, be active or passive, direct or indirect, continuous or short-term, etc. Each of these ways of acting toward a goal can be valuable: it is important to find the forms of action that work best for you and for your local context.

Regardless of how we intervene, the risk of burnout is high in action-oriented work – especially in activism – making it imperative that interventions incorporate fun, care and rejuvenation.

Ideas for concrete action
The co-creation process prompted individual commitments to action, including starting new initiatives, joining local initiatives in need of support, taking on personal challenges (e.g. to learn more about power dynamics), making broad goals more concrete, and supporting others who are taking action.

One proposed initiative is the creation of a Power Literacy Lab, which could serve as a pop-up lab, offering discussions and workshops to help people understand and talk about power in an accessible way. Each lab would be designed in collaboration with local civil society organisations, to ensure that it is tailored to local challenges. The labs would culminate in the creation of manifestos with concrete recommendations for local policy-makers.

Another proposal envisions using art to support just, sustainable cities, in order to provide options for non-verbal consultations, encouraging locals to use art to express their visions for their neighbourhoods’ futures.

Finally, participants in this co-creative process explored widening the use of participatory budgeting, in which residents are able to choose towards what projects their local authority allocates a given budget. There are various ways of undertaking participatory budgeting, including by making use of democratic voting processes.

For more information
This co-creation process was convened by the UrbanA project, which is coordinated by ICLEI Europe. Later today (20 October), UrbanA is launching a set of “Keys for just sustainable cities”, which will act as a resource for all those committed to this work.

For more information, visit the newly launched Sustainable Just Cities portal at: