Urban Development: A Viable Option After Rio 2012?

Author:Andrea Martinez
Position:J.D. candidate, May 2011, at American University Washington College of Law
For the very first time, in 2008, the urban popula tion
exceeded populations in rural areas.1 Currently there are
more than 378 cities with over a million residents and it
is expected that by 2025 this number will grow to 599.2 Almost
seventy-five percent of Europe’s po pulation res ides in urban
areas.3 Meanwhile, urban dwellers represent seventy percent of
the population in Latin America and the Caribbean.4 It is impor-
tant to note that cities only occupy two per cent of Earth’s ter-
restrial surface, and yet the urban-dwelling population consumes
more than seventy-five per cent of the Earth’s natural resources.5
Still, urban areas play an important role in social and economic
development. Urban areas produce a large percentage of countries’
Gross National Product: fifty-five percent in least developed coun-
tries, seventy-three percent in middle-income countries, and eighty-
five percent developed countries.6 In addition to contributing to
economic development, cities also drive “cultural, intellectual, edu-
cational, and technological achievements and innovations.”7 Cities,
therefore, are critical to society’s wellbeing. However, it is crucial
that urbanization is sustainable; otherwise the depletion of natural
resources stands to jeopardize society.
Adequate urban planning brings considerable economic and
resource efficiency.8 An example of the positive potential of sus-
tainable urbanization can be found in the city of Curitiba, Brazil.9
Although Brazil has the fourth-largest urban population in the world,
through proper planning, Brazil’s city of Curitiba had a population of
1.828 million without “congestion, pollution, [or] reduction of public
space” in 2008.10 Among Curitiba’s urban planning successes are its
reduction of carbon dioxide emissions through a coordinated emis-
sion reduction plan of transportation and buildings, and its creation
of parks and artificial lakes in areas vulnerable to floods.11 Curitiba’s
city planning created a city that is economically productive while also
having a low impact on the environment.
Achiev ing the es tablished United Nations s ustainable
development goals12 has proven difficult e specially a fter the
financial and energy crises.13 Consequently the United Nations
General Assembly decided to organize a Conference on Sustain-
able Development to be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 (“CSD
2012”).14 CSD 2012 has the following three objectives: 1) “secure
renewed political commitment for sustainable development;”15
2) assess progress and implementation gaps on agreed commit-
ments;16 and 3) address “new and emerg ing challenges.”17 In
addition, CSD 2012 has two themes, one of them being, “green
economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty
The Green economy initiative w as spearheaded by United
Nations Environment Programm e (“UNEP”) i n 2008 and was
described as “an economy that results in improved human well-
being and reduc ed inequalitie s over the long term, while not
urban Development: a viable option aFter rio 2012?
by Andrea Martinez*
* Andrea Martinez is a J.D. candidate, May 2011, at American University Wash-
ington College of Law.
exposing future generations to significant environmental risks
and ecological scarcities.”1 9 Although not all member states
have reached a consensus on the definition of green economy,20
many developed countries perceive green economy as critical to
accomplishing sustainable development.21 Meanwhile, develop-
ing countries express concern, fearing that industrialized coun-
tries will use green economy to limit their growth by imposing
difficult to meet standards via trade, official development assis-
tance, or financing.22 Nevertheless, member states have agreed
upon a study to be completed for the Second Preparatory Com-
mittee, which will address the challenges, benefits, and potential
risks of transitioning to a green economy.23
The theme of green economy has an important connotation
for sustainable urbanization. In the Green Economy Report by
UNEP the impact of well-designed cities is emphasized. Urban
areas house large portions of the pop ulation therefore well-
designed cities create “resource efficiency with economic and
social opportunity.”24 UNEP has collecte d data showing that
green economy invested in sustainable cities and green construction
can mitigate and support sustainable development through its:25
• “potential to reduce approximately [twenty-n ine] per cent
of the projected baseline emissions by 2020 cost-effectively
in the residential and commercial sectors,”26
• energy-efficient buildings, which would save energy costs
and create “milli ons of jobs”27 esp ecially in countries in
transition and developing countries,28
• clean transportation, which would reduce “transport-related
smog and fine air particles,”2 9 pr ovide “health and wider
environmental benefits,”30 and produce savings on fuel.31
Ultimately, addressing green economy concerns will be a
pivotal next-step to ensuring that CSD 2012 produces an action-
able agreem ent that will benefit sustaina ble urbanization. 32
Although the gr een economy is n ot the only path to sustain-
able urbanization, it is a step-forward: it creates new economic
opportunitie s, promotes equity, and compl ements sustai nable
development.33 As with everything, gree n economy is not per-
fect and does pose im plementation c hallenges. Sti ll, Curitiba
has shown the world that these challenges are not impossible to
overcome and that ultimately t he effort to “co- integrate nature
and human economic development”34 is rewarding for the entire
community. In co nclusion, “ci ties will be cent ral in bringing
about tomorrow’s economic benefits and welfare,”35 but the
benefits will depen d on s ociety’s unified , timely, and selfles s
investment in sustainable cities.
Endnotes: Urban Development on page 62