The need for a city vision

Cities can be vibrant hubs of enterprise and innovation, bringing together business, education and administration to generate economic growth and culture. The concentration of people in cities has huge implications for the world in terms of environmental impact, resource depletion, deteriorating ecosystems and climate change1, all of which present major challenges and opportunities in meeting the goal of sustainable development. 

Many cities have struggled to cope with the disconnection that exists between long term environmental change and shorter term planning horizons, and this has often meant that cities have taken a relatively short term view of the future, for example, because of political resistance or fragmented decision-making.

But things are changing. Many cities in the UK and internationally are building visions of how they see their future to 2020, 2050 and beyond. Part of the drive for this comes from the increasing devolution of powers from central government to cities, but also from a real desire for cities to think ahead and develop strategies which will help them transition to a more sustainable future. These visions (or shared expectations about a plausible and desirable future) differ in their shape and form, but they are a powerful way of promoting discussion and debate, providing a sense of purpose and mobilising resources so that a city can plan for and move to a sustainable future.

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In the UK, for example, Bristol’s 2020 vision, and its smart city vision, is based on ‘people, place and prosperity’, a desire to be a ‘Global Green Capital’, and an aspiration to be a centre for smart city thinking. In Canada, Vancouver aims to be the world’s greenest city by 2020 with tough targets set for greenhouse gas emissions and a desire to create a city which is resilient to climate change. In Denmark Copenhagen’s vision is based on a target to be carbon neutral by 2025, underpinned by a highly successful walking/cycling policy agenda and a strong focus on renewables.

Looking further ahead into the future, Glasgow has developed a vision for 2061, which is now also underpinned by its aspiration to be a leading ‘future city’ with smart technology at its core2. Smaller urban areas have also developed visions. In the UK, for example, Milton Keynes is working with business and other stakeholders to develop a Smart 2020 Vision with a strong focus on electric vehicles and smart technologies.

The best city visions are something more than simply a branding or re-branding exercise. Although a successful city vision only becomes a success when the vision is realised, best practice visions not only clearly link together strategies, plans and actions, but also integrate the vision clearly with climate change, energy, infrastructure, economy and people. Moreover, successful visions need to be politically viable, analytically sound, and participatory so that key stakeholders form part of the process of formulating the vision.