An irreversible movement for sustainable cities

From the Rio conference in 1992 to the COP26 in Glasgow, the progress made for the recognition of environmental issues is notable although insufficient in terms of the actions to be accomplished. In Quebec, the mobilization of civil society has proven to be essential, both to spark debate and to experiment and implement solutions. This mobilization is widening and accelerating, and that’s good.

The birth of the environmental movement in urban areas

In June 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Rio Conference, adopted a declaration which advanced the concept of the rights and responsibilities of countries in the field of the environment.

From this date, sustainable development and the fight against climate change become concepts understood and officially recognized internationally.

At the same time, in Quebec, many organizations are developing to take concrete action in the face of environmental issues, and particularly through the lens of the urban environment. Among them, the City of Montreal’s Éco-quartier program was created in 1995, followed by the Montreal Urban Ecology Center, the Montreal Regional Environmental Council and Vivre en Ville, which were created in 1996.

The ideas of bringing nature into the city, rethinking travel, managing our residual materials in a more responsible way, developing the urbanized territory sustainably, protecting green and agricultural spaces and experimenting with citizen participation in Decision-making and project implementation have animated this urban movement from the start and have rallied, over time, thousands of citizens, decision-makers and professionals towards this change in city life.

Twenty-five years later, COP26 shows the acuteness of the environmental issues and the scale of the challenges to be met, both internationally and locally.

The pressure on the urban environment is strong, but places cities at the heart of solutions: by 2050, two thirds of the planet’s inhabitants will be city dwellers.

A change activated by civil society

During our 25 years of action, we have witnessed a real change in the way of approaching the quality of life in the city and the urban environment. Health, environment, quality of the living environment and democracy now guide municipal public policies.

Thousands of initiatives led by cities, organizations, groups of citizens and businesses have flourished in urban areas: green alleys, shared streets, waste management, public consultation systems, urban design on a human scale. Not to mention the mobilization of residents, both to demand cities on a human scale and to act hyperlocally with projects such as urban agriculture. And very recently, faced with the immense challenges that cities are already facing, a record number of candidates ran for municipal elections, making environmental issues their hobbyhorse.

This mobilization proves to us that the population is ready to make a commitment for the future.

Urban planning decisions are no longer taken in isolation; they are now open to citizens, elected officials, scientists, organizations and professionals. The desire of the Government of Quebec to adopt a National Architecture and Planning Policy is one example. Collaboration between municipalities is now essential. As the challenges that cities face often go beyond administrative borders (think of the housing crisis, for example), it seems essential to work together beyond the local level to build sustainable living environments.

Standing still is no longer acceptable

Cities have a real role to play against climate change internationally, and they are not alone. Not only is the City of Montreal a source of inspiration and daring abroad for a resilient and low-carbon city, but it has also cultivated collaboration with civil society. Not to mention the residents who now aspire to participate in the creation of sustainable living environments.

Now more than ever, it is necessary to rethink our way of conceiving cities. The era of the pilot project is over; it is a massive transformation of the modes of development, consumption and displacement which must be operated.

Standing still is not acceptable. Municipal policies must be designed with a constant obsession with fighting climate change and adapting to it. It will also be necessary to ensure that everyone can benefit from quality living environments, regardless of age or socio-economic status. The National Architecture and Planning Policy will have to meet the challenges, since it will mark the future of our communities for decades to come.

Strong actions must be taken now, because we no longer have the possibility of waiting another 25 years. Today, the urgency of the climate challenge must rally the forces for an irreversible movement towards sustainable cities. It’s one minute to midnight, let’s get started!

* Co-signers: Eve Lortie-Fournier, Executive Director of the Regroupement des éco-quartier de Montréal; Emmanuel Rondia, Director General of the Montreal Regional Environmental Council; Christian Savard, Managing Director of Vivre en Ville; Sandrine Cabana-Degani, general manager of Piétons Québec; Dave Harvey, Managing Director of Park People / Amis des parcs; Melanie Le Berre, Executive Director of the Montreal Climate Partnership; Alexandre turgeon, Director General of the Regional Environment Council – Capitale-Nationale Region; Martin Vaillancourt, Director General of the National Regrouping of Regional Environmental Councils of Quebec (RNCREQ)

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