Western Harbour Malmo

Melbourne Principles for Sustainable Cities

Michael O'Hare - August 7, 2009

Have you read the Melbourne Principles for Sustainable Cities? They are a set of 10 principles that “Guide thinking and provide a strategic framework….allow cities to develop sustainable solutions…bring together citizens and decision-makers”.

I like them. For example, principle 7 is to “Empower people and foster participation” – a noble aspiration for any city.

But I do have one small criticism.

Background to Melbourne Principles

First, I’d like to mention a little of the background to the Principles. In 2002 a group of over 40 experts from around the world met in Melbourne for a charrette, organised by UNEP (United Nations Environment Program), and developed a Vision:

“To create environmentally healthy, vibrant and sustainable cities where people respect one another and nature, to the benefit of all”

Followed by the 10 principles you can read in the document.

So what’s good about it?

They state, “the principles are not prescriptive…they allow cities to develop sustainable solutions that are relevant to their particular circumstances”.

This is fantastic. Recognising that every city needs to find its own path, with the principles acting like a Sherpa to help along the way, is incisive. Every city will have a distinctive history, an individual present and a unique destiny. Principle 6 asserts just this, encouraging you to build on the characteristics and culture of the city.

Could the principles be a guide for your city?

And what’s the criticism?

To be generic enough to encompass the needs of all cities and to get agreement among 40+ experts is a tough, tough job. And I admire what they came up with. But I wonder if, to do this, they sacrificed a little more than they needed to in the content.

Think of the some of the best cities for people in the World – say Malmo, Copenhagen, Freiburg or Curitiba. What do they have in common?

They all have world leading, concrete examples of sustainability. E.g. 100% Local Renewable Energy in Malmo, Cycle Paths in Copenhagen, a Solar City in Freiburg and a remarkable Bus System in Curitiba. But, more than that, they are all doing all these things. All the great cities are building better spaces for people, improved public transport and more renewable energy.  Absolutely all of them.

See my page on what to build for examples of what I think every city could do to make them more sustainable. These concrete examples not only are necessary to obtain sustainability, but also to make it real to the people of the city.

The Melbourne Principles are abstract and do not prescribe what to build. And I think they lose something because of that, turning a potentially excellent document that everyone could use into something that may end up only being used by city specialists.

My advice

So what do I think?

I think you should read the Melbourne principles if you are working with cities. I’m sure there is something in there that will add to your current repertoire of ideas.

But do not focus on just the abstract. To build sustainable cities you have to build something. Build a park to rival Central Park, a tram to rival Strasburg’s and cycle paths to rival Amsterdam’s. As Nike say, “Just Do It.”

Maybe you won’t get everything right all the time. Curitiba, Malmo and Copenhagen didn’t either, but look where they are now.

Or do you think differently?

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