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Well-Poised -- Understanding daily life through the lens of liveability and sustainability

Originally published in Issue 1 at CUriosity in Spring 2018.

“Heaven on Earth is a choice we must make, not a place we must find.”, said famous author Dr. Wayne Dyer. Like “striking a work-life balance”, “sustainable development” has been a cliché since the late 1980s. While people are brought to talk over and over about improving their standard of living and the sustainability of community and the environment, little has been discussed regarding how these are to be achieved altogether. Indeed, many people have started caring less about merely attracting growth and more about how to manage growth towards a positive end; yet, without truly understanding the conceptual linkage between liveability and sustainability, one can hardly make a fundamental shift in mindset from city as growth machine to a “liveable” and “sustainable” one.

Defining sustainability and liveability

Sustainability is an elusive concept. The Brundtland Report defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Many criticised this definition for its ambiguity on “future needs” and its anthropocentric assumptions. Later, scholars such as David Maddox refined sustainable development to be a mix of interests of economics, environment, and social equity.

Liveability, by contrast, is a more practical and operational concept. It focuses on immediate and tangible conditions. Despite being subjective, liveability is a prerequisite for the integrity of a sustainable community, because people would otherwise leave if this is not liveable. The concept positively affects the experience of a place, thus promoting the wellbeing of individuals in a community.

Conflict and complementarity

While consensus on concept definitions is critical to advance practice, the linkages between liveability and sustainability should deserve equal attention.

Conflicts occur when it comes to discussing the practicality of concept implementation and the concern on intergenerational needs. The notion of sustainability is contradictory to liveability because it often fails to go beyond normative theories to application. Also, liveability promotes remedies to existing conditions, while sustainability focuses on intergenerational equity which sometimes requires compromise from the present generation. For example, to reduce greenhouse gas emission, people in California, Florida, Oregon, and Washington are encouraged to drive less, causing them trouble travelling. This apparent conflict is the main obstacle in implementing sustainable projects. In other words, the goal of sustainability is eroded away by on-the-ground impracticalities, which render sustainability projects unable to move forward. This “conflict” is the traditional view taken by those who consider these two concepts incompatible.

But we can still find complementarities between the concepts. While liveability needs sustainability to provide frameworks for future investments, sustainability needs liveability to carry out potential plans for urban planning from below. Besides, liveability needs sustainability to promise economics, environment and social equity among various stakeholders, while sustainability needs liveability to change behaviours of certain local stakeholders.

Liveability as a device for sustainability

In fact, liveability is not just a complement of but also a mechanism towards sustainability. Liveability, as a subset of sustainability affecting the people in a community directly, serves as a device to sustainability that helps achieve long-term sustainability goals in three ways.

Firstly, liveability inspires positive changes to local communities, whose members would be more open-minded to planning interventions. At times people are reluctant to change, but it is changes that bring human progress. Liveability has an intrinsic meaning of making changes to make people live more comfortably. The concept of liveability can fragmentise sustainability goals for easier adoption at the local level. Policymakers can set incremental goals to achieve long-term sustainability goals in terms of enhancing liveability. For example, it is hard to convince people of the vision of improving pedestrian design; but easier when we say we want to make a local neighbourhood walkable. This is how liveability can vehicle sustainability in terms of encouraging changes.

Secondly, liveability closes the spatial gap between the public and the individuals. Humans have multiple identities. We can be either the public or a group of individuals. When talking about sustainability, we address issues about resource depletion, overpopulation, urban resilience, etc. These issues are considered at a broader spatial scale, in which people’s role is “the public”. In contrast, when talking about liveability, we normally address issues such as road traffic safety, efficient local mobility. These issues are more relevant to people’s daily life when people are “a group of individuals”. Usually, people view their own benefits more importantly than others’ and are rather indifferent about social participation. Liveability is in favour of this mentality, which promotes awareness of local people in their living environments.

Thirdly, liveability concerns can direct and alter long-term sustainability goals. Sustainability is a long-term ideal. It seldom changes after the framework is set, as reflected from the present framework of economic-environment-social equity nexus. By contrast, liveability is more dynamic in nature. It responses to changing circumstances by providing changing solutions. Not only do the changes impact on people’s way of thinking, they also impact on how sustainability is framed and revised. For example, if traffic jam occurs more and more frequently, transportation will be on top of the agenda, and when people realise incremental remedies cannot help, they will look for a long-term answer that happens to address sustainability concerns; if more people report on extremely dry weather conditions in summer, sustainable use of freshwater may be put on the table as well.

When the right approach or attitude is adopted, the synergistic effects can be rewarding. Liveability and sustainability should not be viewed separately, as either of them is in a position to harm or contribute to the attainment of the other one.

Opportunities and challenges

We are poised in a uniquely optimistic position in the 21st century: with the advancement in telecommunication technology, citizens can express their concerns on sustainability and liveability issues on online platforms. This places a “positive pressure” on corporations to re-examine their energy consumption and rebrand. Also, companies’ involvement has increased drastically after they saw business opportunities in it. Some of them even assume leading roles in sustainability progress, such as Shell, which helps local people recover from crisis and transforms their communities and empowers them to help to conserve the environment. Shell also published Sustainability Report reporting voluntarily on their environmental performance since 1997 to outline their contribution to sustainable development. Corporations like Shell are taking the lead for other multinational corporations to follow suit in the march for a more sustainable future. This helps to create a ripple effect in others’ lives.

However, sometimes an ironic situation happens—it takes initial resources to reduce resource consumption. For developed countries, they have resources to install the solar panels and build the windmills in order to save non-renewable resources. However, to developing countries, they do not want to spare resources for developing renewable resources so they resume using traditional ones where the costs are lower. This poses challenges to sustainability if we only resort to market mechanisms when handling issues that affect the achievement of sustainability.

How to turn challenges into opportunities?

“Megacities, mega-challenges” is a very important urban sustainability issue. Mega-challenges ranging from waste treatment to traffic jams come along with the expansion of cities. The negative experiences in megacities lower its liveability. The concentrated population also induces health and environmental issues that hold back cities’ pursuit for sustainability as well as liveability.

Although megacities sound like unpleasant places to reside, we can turn these challenges into opportunities as most resources are usually made available for megacities, and they are often under the spotlight when considering implementing policies. For example, we can encourage industries to make profits from recycling to balance between economic development and environment. We can also promote walkable neighbourhood, which enhances interconnectivity between families and reduces usage of cars which causes traffic jams. It is critical to identify ways to turn challenges into opportunities in order to make liveability a part of a sustainable community and society.

Zooming in on Hong Kong

Design and consultancy firm Arcadis’s Sustainable Cities Index 2016 ranks Hong Kong as 16th in the overall Index and 81st in the People sub-index, and second in the Profit sub-index. Hong Kong is, beyond doubt, a convenient place to live and the best place to do business; but when it comes to protecting the environment, definitely more has to be done.

The Arcadis’s Index ranks 100 global cities on three dimensions of sustainability: people, planet and profit, which represent social, environmental and economic sustainability respectively. In the 2016 Index, Hong Kong ranked 29th in the Planet sub-index, coming behind Singapore (12) and Seoul (26). The Planet sub-index assesses cities’ performance on energy consumption and renewable energy share, green space within cities, recycling and composting rates, greenhouse gas emissions, natural catastrophe risk, quality of drinking water, sanitation and air pollution. It is not surprising that, as one of the planet’s most densely populated cities hosting more than 7.3 million people, Hong Kong faces challenges ranging from limited public space, growing population, ageing population, and a rapidly increasing cross-boundary traffic with China. These challenges seriously hinder Hong Kong’s drive for environmental sustainability.

Has Hong Kong been doing anything in face of the challenges to sustainability? Not really. Instead, more controversial public infrastructure projects are set to begin or will be finished in the coming few years. These projects have all raised public concern on various environmental issues. For instance, Hong Kong International Airport, currently operating at 99% capacity, is undergoing construction of a third runway, which is due to open in 2024. The construction has done considerable damage to coral reefs and Chinese white dolphins living in the waters near Lantau Island. Another controversial project - the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge - was originally scheduled to open at the end of 2017 but was subject to delay again. The bridge is meant to facilitate more economic exchanges between Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta. However, the construction has constantly led to concerns among civil society groups that vehicles coming from China will bring more air pollution in Hong Kong.

Key perspective: engagement

Given all these challenges, how can the pursuit of liveability help to drive sustainability in Hong Kong? Engagement is the key. Public engagement is crucial in putting the concepts of sustainability and liveability together. Governments can propose solutions to urban problems that reconcile the concept of sustainability and liveability, encouraging people to blend in the community through social engagement as they collectively determine the lifestyle shared by members of that community. This contributes to making places more liveable, thus bringing elusive sustainability goals down to earth. People have the rights to articulate what liveability means to them, though different from community to community. Ultimately, local solutions can contribute to global urban planning discourse, and be re-localised elsewhere. Liveability and sustainability should be viewed in the same context, and plans that sacrifice sustainability must be reviewed carefully. After all, liveability and sustainability are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.

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