What does the municipality of the future look like?

What does the municipality of the future look like?

By Keane Gruending

September 09, 2014

It’s an ideal place to live, with sustainability in its DNA, and takes an integrated approach to decision-making and planning. But do we have to look to the future for an ideal place to live? Aren’t there existing cities and municipalities that tick all of these boxes?

You could cite the vaunted Livable Cities Index, put out annually by The Economist, as a proxy for deciding where the ‘best city’ is to live; Melbourne, Vienna, and Vancouver topped the list in the last round, with two other Canadian cities nipping at their heels. However, these cities are judged on a fairly narrow range of metrics—stability, healthcare, culture & environment, and education—with fairly arbitrary weighting, and, like any index, differences in individual values will sway results.

While it’s hard to disagree with the traits that The Economist says constitute an ideal place to live, it would be difficult to assert that many municipalities are where they need to be in terms of carbon emissions, among other environmental concerns. There are pockets of progress, but no one place has yet to put it all together, yet.

The municipality of the future is an ideal place to live, where governance systems work, planning is based on people-oriented outcomes and is both environmentally sustainable and economically efficient. This list, of course, is not in any specific order of priority.

On good governance, I would argue that a good structure for a municipality—or any government for that matter—is characterized by a high degree of transparency, accountability, and public engagement. Such informed, functional democracy is a sight to behold, and is seen, at least in part, in many of Canada’s municipalities and the Swiss system of cantons, where direct democracy is prevalent.

Regarding people-orientated outcomes, they refer to policy principles that emphasize human safety and physical and mental health. They are measured, understood, and integrated into all forms of planning, from transportation to energy and beyond. Cities are built by people for people; they must work, and work well, for the residents who live there. Tokyo is a good example. It is a place where the urban design ensures high degrees of walkability, which has contributed to the city’s reputation as one of the healthiest regions of the world.

Working through the list, sustainability is a difficult concept to pin down. I would argue that reducing carbon emissions should be the most important environmental goal for a municipality to pursue. A sustainable city is highly resource efficient—a trait that leads to resilience and self-sufficiency—and uses low-carbon energy sources for electricity, transport, and heating and cooling. While many of the world’s most low-carbon municipalities are decidedly low-tech, there is evidence that some of the globe’s most advanced economies are decoupling economic growth from emissions. Powered by hydro and governed by a Green Building Strategy, Vancouver is a great example of an environmentally sustainable city. Similarly, wind- and bike-powered City of Copenhagen is a great European example of sustainability, and Aizu Wakamatsu, a mid-sized city in Japan recovering from the Fukushima disaster, has ambitious plans to reinvent itself as a sustainable Smart City, through an innovative partnership with Fujitsu. Of course, municipalities in the developed world have a thing or two to learn from cities in the Global South in terms of resource efficiency (especially carbon emissions).

Last but not the least: the municipality of the future is economically efficient and robust. In addition to having an educated workforce, which can reduce unemployment rates, lead to high wages, and make a city affordable, the municipality should also be attractive to business. Instead of applying distortion-inducing taxes on income and capital, environmental externalities, such as air and water pollution, could be taxed.

There is the definition for the municipality of the future—good governance, people-oriented, environmental sustainability, and economically efficient—these concepts aren’t mutually exclusive. And, often, one trait can lead to another. For example: public transit and cycling are the two of the most economically efficient ways of getting around. They are low-carbon, promote positive health outcomes for humans, and facilitate road safety.

The key takeaway is this: an ideal place is one where you would want to live. It’s a city with a “work in progress sign” and, as always, the devil is in the details. In a democracy, differences in values and politics can obscure the execution.

(Icon photo courtesy of La Citta Vita/Flickr)

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