Parks Tau. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Parks Tau. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

By 2050, it is estimated that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities and towns. For cities to be sustainable, global policies for sustainability must be implemented at local level, says SA Local Government Association (Salga) president Parks Tau.

In July the UN created a platform for engagement with local governments. UN deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed said 60%-70% of the organisation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could be achieved with the direct involvement of the various local governments.

"Local governments are on the frontline of the world’s most daunting challenges — for example, climate change. They require support from national and international levels, the private sector and civil society," she said.

Although cities set their own priorities, the 17 SDGs are interlinked and must all be considered in decision-making at local level, Tau says. Will hunger be addressed by a city’s development project? What about poverty, gender equality, energy, water, resilience, sustainable production and industrialisation, climate change and economic inclusivity?

Former World Green Building Council African Network chair Thulani Kuzwayo says environmental sustainability is generally seen as an add-on "as though it is in competition with other priorities — such as poverty alleviation, job creation, health and education — when in fact it is the glue that makes all these priorities complementary".

If cities are critical in attaining up to 70% of the SDGs, institutional mechanisms to implement them must be put in place, Tau says.

The integrated development plans that drive development in cities must be measured to see if they address the goals.

Cities must be empowered to reject proposals from developers that do not serve a long-term agenda for environmental sustainability, says Tau. This will require legislative amendments.

Salga is exploring avenues for providing resources to the country’s municipalities.

"When you read the newspapers and they say a third of our municipalities are dysfunctional … we need to remind the government that they were designed to be dysfunctional," says Tau.

"They were always going to be unviable municipalities because they do not have a tax base," he says.

Tackling apartheid morphology, which has thwarted sustainability at every level, requires unique strategies. There are lessons to be learnt from other parts of the world.

"If we understand our role … we can push for a vision of sustainability as a tool for improving the quality of life for everyone," says the enigmatic mayor of Quito in Ecuador, Mauricio Rodas.

"The main actors for sustainable development in cities are the mayors; we have to acknowledge that. And that means not only having the resources and the legal framework to implement good concrete actions towards sustainable development, but also to have a system through which we can follow up on those actions."

In SA, 70% of the population uses public transport. Quito placed the city on a sustainable track that is worth emulating. The South American city has invested heavily in a subway line and a cable-car system to serve mountaintop areas.

"This is not only an environmentally friendly project, but it is also an initiative that helps to regenerate areas that have been poor for decades," Rodas says.

Transforming Johannesburg into a sustainable city involves reducing dependency on long-distance travel. The majority of the city’s population spends 70% of their earnings on transport and food.

SA’s Bus Rapid Transport programme is an attempt to overcome racial segregation and the exclusion of the majority of the population from employment opportunities and social, cultural and academic amenities found in cities.

The City of Joburg’s 2018-2019 Integrated Development Plan is aligned to the Environmental Sustainability Strategy and the Climate Change Strategic Framework.

Several actions have been identified to reduce the consumption of natural resources and cut carbon emissions, to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events, minimise environmental pollution, and protect the city’s natural environment.

Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba is known for identifying priorities and driving them. He did this with the insourcing of security and has thrown his weight behind inner-city regeneration, earmarking 71 buildings for student accommodation and commercial development.

But the tension between juggling the demands of the present and worrying about how the city will function in 20 years’ time is also part of a mayor’s job description.

"The challenge for any politician in local government is that the gains derived from a sustainability-driven approach may materialise long after a five-year political cycle and this may discourage the kind of upfront investment required to achieve sustainable service delivery," says Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga.

"I appreciate that the impacts of my decisions may leave a legacy of a life-time and thus my decision-making framework is not framed by political expediency but long-term social transformation."

The City of Tshwane’s Climate Response Strategy tackles core sustainability challenges. Responsibility for implementation is distributed across departments, with support from the private sector.

Tshwane has also introduced a green building bylaw that requires that all new developments have resource efficiency measures. An incentives policy is being developed to stimulate uptake of the bylaw.

Sustainability leadership in Africa needs to be reimagined, Kuzwayo says.

"In the past, being a good leader did not involve pursuing a self-serving agenda; it was about ensuring that the whole community flourished."