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| Blending government and governance in sustainable towns

The EU-backed DISCUS project sought to find ways of boosting the capacity of local authorities to blend ‘government’ and ‘governance’ to manage urban areas sustainably. After conducting a thorough investigation in 40 European cities, the three-year project’s findings led to the formulation of the groundbreaking Fano guidelines for urban sustainability policies.

Sustainable cities are a major policy challenge. DISCUS came up with ten golden rules for managing urban areas sustainably
Sustainable cities are a major policy challenge. DISCUS came up with ten golden rules for managing urban areas sustainably
Most of humanity now lives in cities and their pull continues, particularly in developing countries. In Europe, some four-fifths of the population live in some kind of urban environment. This means that ensuring the sustainability of our towns and cities is an issue of paramount importance at the local, national, European and international levels.

The growing status of our cities was formally recognised at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro – which is a major city in its own right and ceased to be the capital of Brazil in order to ease the population pressures on it. At the Rio Summit, the so-called Agenda 21 – the United Nations’ action plan for sustainable development in the 21st century – was hammered out.

A key aspect of this action plan was Local Agenda 21 which recommends that local communities worldwide draw up and implement sustainable development plans for their own regions taking into account local conditions. By the time the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, came around a decade later, over 6 000 local authorities had launched Local Agenda 21 or similar planning processes.

In consultation with their citizens, they sought to develop strategies for future developments that maintain a good quality of life while reducing the use of natural resources. “Urban local authorities have been some of the most committed institutions working towards sustainable development over the last decade,” notes Stefan Kuhn of the ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, who is also the coordinator of DISCUS.

A European agenda

At the turn of the millennium, a project entitled Local Authorities’ Self-Assessment of Local Agenda (LASALA) investigated the outcomes of Local Agenda 21 processes in some 150 European municipalities. LASALA identified 24 good practice cases – albeit in different cultural, political and socio-economic settings.

This raised the question of how transferable these experiences were, and whether there were common attributes that distinguished all such cases. A widely accepted assumption has been that local policy innovation can spread through the documentation and dissemination of good examples. These are then transferred from one place to another and adapted.

The Developing Institutional and Social Capacities for Urban Sustainability (DISCUS) project set out to test this assumption and delve into the related issues of the repercussions of transfer failure and the preconditions for sustainability. Undertaking field studies in 40 European cities and towns, it also analyses sustainable development policy processes.

Community spirit in the city

Governing sustainable cities contained the DISCUS project's final findings and recommendations
Governing sustainable cities contained the DISCUS project's final findings and recommendations
DISCUS also sought to contribute to the on-going debate about the relationship between ‘government’ (top-down approach to governing) and ‘governance’ (a more dialogue-oriented bottom-up approach). More governance, it is generally accepted, promotes a sense of ownership among citizens, engendering a spirit of co-operation between local authorities and residents for the greater good.

However, building up the necessary infrastructure for effective governance, the project partners point out, requires a sustained and long-term commitment. In addition, governance does not mean local authorities can transfer responsibility to the people.

“Our fieldwork confirms that a shift from ‘government’ to ‘governance’ is not sufficient to create more sustainable towns and cities,” explains Kuhn. “Strong and self-confident local governments are still central in bringing about tangible and long-term results for sustainability.”

What is required, it appears, is a good blend of old-fashioned government and responsible governance. “The ‘art’ of governing sustainable cities,” Kuhn observes, “is thus to create competent local government that, in interaction with a highly responsible and responsive civil society, applies a form of governing that brings about the most sustainable solutions.”

Culture is an important component of this process as it helps in the “creation of a new societal attitude of shared responsibility for public welfare”, he adds.

Signposting the road to sustainable cities

Based on the findings of DISCUS, the project partners presented ten guidelines outlining the factors and conditions that were crucial to building up the necessary capacity within local government for the successful implementation of local sustainability policy.

These guidelines (see box) were presented at a series of ten workshops attended by 130 participants from 28 European countries during the Governing Sustainable Cities conference in Fano, Italy (4-5 November 2004). The DISCUS partners hope these principles will help local authorities and citizens all over Europe build a more sustainable future for their urban communities.

Related research themes


graphic element
  1. Learning as an organisation – Local government should invest in sustainable development training for its officials
  2. Moving away from policy ‘silos’ within local government – Knowledge from all policy areas needs to be combined for sustainability policy to be effective
  3. Making alliances with people and organisations –   Businesses, organisations and individuals need to be included in local sustainability policy
  4. Facilitating the process and developing credible leadership – Local government needs to set an example for other stakeholders in sustainability management
  5. Encouraging creativity and innovation in policy-making – Creative people are vital to answering new and emerging challenges
  6. Communicating to make a difference – Communication is crucial in raising awareness of the changes in behaviour that sustainable development demands
  7. Catalysing action through raising environmental awareness – Winning people’s interest is an important component to earning their commitment
  8. Maintaining commitment to achieving the long-term vision – Although action needs to be taken one step at a time, it should be guided by a long-term vision
  9. Sharing experience with peers –Networking with other cities creates a common cause for the re-orientation of local development
  10. Influencing all levels of government – Working with other levels of government means that local considerations can rise up the administrative ladder