Decoding Design

Cities take center stage at Rio +20 Summit

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The global urban population has grown by 1 billion since the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, a.k.a. Rio +20 Summit, kicks off this week and, along with population growth, urbanism is expected to be a main topic of study and conversation.

The event is massive and complex. Aside from the main event -- a meeting of heads of state that will span June 20 to 22 and likely include marathon talks in an effort to scratch out actionable international agreements -- there are more than 500 side events taking place in Rio.

In his Monday morning email to readers, GreenBiz.com executive editor Joel Makower wrote:

Jay Carson, executive director of C40, the sustainable cities initiative started by Michael Bloomberg and Bill Clinton, told me by phone from Rio over the weekend: "The vast majority of the conversation here is around cities" -- a big change from two years ago in Copenhagen, when cities were barely on the agenda.

Building better cities, in fact, is the topic of a presentation Makower will give during the World Green Summit, an event sponsored by Phillips and a number of other blue chip firms.

Since the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, urban populations have increased by more than 1 billion and cities are now home to half the world's population. By 2050 they are likely to house 70 percent of us, so they're vitally important to the long-term health of the planet. Here at Smart Planet, we're more than a little interested in the ways that cities are becoming smarter, more innovative, and better at accommodating the needs of our growing population.

Some of the specific topics regarding cities to be addressed during the summit include:

  • Resilient Cities: Risk is always present, but with 2 to 15 million city dwellers living in areas with high potential for seismic activity, disaster planning is more important than ever. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction is hosting a session that will showcase its campaign "Ten Essentials for Making Cities Resilient."
  • Sustainable Transportation Systems: India and Mexico have initiated national urban transport investment programs. This session, sponsored by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy will present information on how transport systems are funded, the role of national transport policies, and the role that transport system monitoring and data collection can play in making transportation systems smarter.
  • Cities for Equality: The Ford Foundation is holding an event to address the role that mayors and philanthropic organizations can play to ensure that cities grow in a manner that allow all residents to "generate wealth, advance social inclusion, and protect the environment." New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg will be one of the speakers.
  • Adaptation to Climate Change: The French Environment and Energy Management Agency is holding a panel and debate concerning the best way to "govern and administrate the cities of tomorrow." Specifically, it will focus on the ways that cities have traditionally grown -- through "urban sprawl, car dependency, greenhouse gas emissions, rising social exclusion" -- and propose ways that urban areas can grow without these elements. And while the session is framed around cities of tomorrow, we know that climate adaptation activities are already on our doorstep.

It will be interesting to watch how the Rio +20 plays out. Though the general mood is, overall, pessimistic over whether any important agreements will be hashed out, there's always hope.

Images: (Top) Attendees of a pre-event for Rio +20, Flickr/Fora do Eixo; Rio, Flickr/seier+seier

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure