Habitable cities for the future

SDG Ziel 11: Nachhaltige Städte und Gemeinden
Sustainable city: skyline of the city of Shenzhen in China in the background and large solar panel in the foreground
© GettyImages/bingfengwu

This year’s digital annual Alumniportal conference was the occasion for experts among the Germany alumni to discuss how cities can be designed to be sustainable. The objective: to mitigate the impacts of our climate crisis. This involved lectures, networking meetings and workshops over two days – with fascinating results. 

How can we defend our cities against impacts of the climate crisis? This was one of the core issues at this year’s annual Alumniportal conference on 16 and 17 November. ‘Sustainable Cities: From Challenges to Solutions’ (the title in German reads Nachhaltige Städte: Von Herausforderungen zu Lösungen). Some 120 alumni and alumnae from all parts of the world took part in this digital programme, which was prepared and moderated by Jose Bolaños, communications manager at the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), along with other committed Germany alumni and alumnae.  

How can this development goal for cities be achieved?

Even before the climate crisis intensified, people in large cities were suffering from the effects of air pollution, noise or heat, but also overcrowding, a lack of urban green spaces and social inequalities. One of the global development goals, , formulates the aspiration of making cities and communities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by 2030. But how can we do this? Experts at the alumni conference exchanged views on that topic. The annual conference also saw the meeting of four teams from the final round of the Community Challenge, which this year also dealt with ideas relating to sustainable cities 


There are lots of good practical examples worldwide

Fortunately, there are many positive examples of how the quality of life in cities can be improved. Jennifer Gerend, Professor of Regional Management and Social Science Methods at Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Science, presented some of these at the start of the conference. ‘Planning in the face of urgency’ was the title of her keynote address. She related that even in the 1920s and 1930s there was a reform movement of architects and urban planners in Germany and the USA who were developing residential areas with community gardens for working class families. Networks like these, Gerend believes, would be very influential when it comes to long-term changes. Another example mentioned by Gerend is the French capital Paris, which became a cycling-friendly city in just a few years thanks to the commitment of its dedicated mayor Anne Hidalgo. ‘People there are enjoying an entirely new quality of life and even tourists are now discovering Paris by bike’, says Gerend. ‘This example indicates that changes can have a rapid impact.’ 




Recording of the keynote speech by Jennifer Gerend

Ideas from the alumni community

The alumni community comes up with lots of other ideas for the future of our cities. That was demonstrated by this year’s Community Challenge. Four of the teams that were represented in the challenge final met during the conference for networking meetings with interested conference attendees. The panel discussion was initially concerned with ‘Urban storytelling: reshaping our modern narratives’. Its focal point was the issue of how planners, politicians and citizens in cities can collaborate to initiate sustainable changes. Who are the heroes of such transformation and how can their stories be disseminated? Simply put: how can we narrate better urban stories?  


"Urban Storytelling: Reshaping our Modern Narratives"

"Urban Storytelling: Reshaping our Modern Narratives"
"Urban Storytelling: Reshaping our Modern Narratives" ©

Recording of the panel discussion

Global prospects: experiences from different continents

This was the topic for discussion among researchers and architects from different continents who contribute a wide array of regional experience: Claudia Sanchez-Bajo from Canada deals with housing cooperatives in Europe and South America that are trialling how people can cohabit in a supportive and sustainable manner. Pratyush Shankar from India is interested in historical and philosophical traditions of city life, especially in South Asia. He seeks to propose a way for people to reconnect with nature. Ata Chokhachian from Iran is working on the possibilities of breaking climate data down to the micro-level, so that people can adapt their everyday lives to changes in climatic conditions. An example he cited are apps that indicate which cycling routes provide the most shade. Omar Aboutaleb from Egypt has specialised in designing public spaces in Arab cities so that they enrich our daily lives. He often uses the simplest means to do this, given a lack of financial resources. Paint can for instance be used to mark areas on paved surfaces where children can play. This is referred to as ‘tactical urbanism’.  


Inclusion of marginalised groups

The panellists’ stories were encouraging and inspiring, and a great preparation for the workshops on the second day of the conference. Two factions dealt with the particular challenges facing sustainable urban planning. Participants in the workshop entitled ‘Co-creating sustainable and inclusive (digital) urban spaces’ mostly spoke about aspects of social sustainability and inclusion, which are often neglected during planning. This faction concluded that marginalised groups, such as people with handicaps, ought to become more of a focal point. Everything done for them does after all benefit the entire community. There should also be greater attention in the digitisation of urban spaces to ensure that services are accessible to and usable by everyone. Major deficits currently exist in this respect.


Urban planning without data

The second working faction considered the difficulties of including non-digitised districts in the Global South within public planning. Its title was ‘Data-driven co-design for equitable planning in urban rural communities’. The issue at stake: urban planning all around the world is now based on data analyses. Yet marginalised districts in the Global South are frequently cut off from digitisation. The needs and interests of residents are consequently not taken into account during planning. Participants discussed whether and how digital tools could help grass root communities to fashion a healthier environment and improve their quality of life.  

Networking for sustainable cities

There was substantial interest among participants in delving deeper into these and other issues. They used the conference as an opportunity for networking to continue working on solutions for sustainable cities in other contexts. 


  • Norma Rodriguez


    Great notes, thank you !

  • Alfredo Avila Galarza


    Thank you for the resume of the conference about: Habitable cities for the future.

  • Christiane Wagner


    As a researcher specializing in sustainable cities, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to join this esteemed networking group. I believe that this platform will provide me with invaluable insights and resources to advance my studies on sustainable urban solutions.

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