Interview with Stefan Kuhn, ICLEI on Sustainability

Stefan Kuhn, Deputy Regional Director, ICLEI Europe shares his thoughts on sustainability ahead of the 7th European conference on sustainable cities and towns.
Published: Wed 27 Mar 2013

The theme of the 7th European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns is “A green and socially responsible economy: a solution in times of crisis?” The event will be held in Geneva, Switzerland from 17-19 April 2013.

The focus will be on governance and finance for sustainable development, with the aim of finding lasting solutions to the current crisis from an economic, social and environmental point of view. 

In an exclusive interview with Engerati, ICLEI’s Stefan Kuhn shares his views on sustainability:

What makes a city or town “sustainable”?

A sustainable city is carbon neutral, uses natural resources in a cyclical way, and through its local economy offers living conditions for its citizens in which they can sustain themselves and participate in the social and cultural life of their city. 

How do cities and urbanization play a key role in achieving sustainability targets?

Most sustainability targets refer to the way we live: what we eat, what we consume, how we build, heat and light our homes, how (and how much) we move, and how we earn our incomes. Today, in Europe most people live in cities, and this has advantages and disadvantages with regards to sustainability. For example, short distances and density of buildings can increase the efficiency of our use of land and energy. On the other hand, many other urban lifestyles are more energy intensive. 

How can the gaps between environmental, economic and social goals be bridged?

By changing the time horizon of our economic goals: Most investments in environmental and social improvements appear 'too expensive' when focusing on the next four to five years. As soon as we adopt a longer term perspective, we will see that these improvements can strengthen our economies. 

In what ways can a “green and socially responsible economy” be a solution in times of crisis?

The term 'green and socially responsible economy' reminds us of what economic activity was originally invented for-to serve the people and to make their lives better. If an economy fails to fulfill exactly this purpose, people do not support it anymore, and it becomes only a kind of detached activity of a few. It's about re-focusing the priorities of our economic activities towards maintaining this planet so that it provides a good place to live in, and towards distributing opportunities more equally amongst all people. In the short term, this may reduce the 'return on investment' a little, in the longer term it's cheaper than cleaning up and building fenced neighborhoods. 

What stands in the way of a city or town becoming sustainable?

Nowadays, cities are still too dependent on fossil resources. These are imported over long distances and are used in a once-off manner. Our short-term economic thinking and the tendency of the last two decades to economize all spheres of life, including hospitals, schools, etc., contributes to a disintegration of economic, environmental and social aspects in managing urban life. I believe that a re-localization of our economy has to (and will) take place. This means that we will produce and recycle large parts of our resources in and around the city instead of shipping them all around the globe. 

Does local government recognize the importance of creating sustainable cities and towns?

Mayors, local officials and councilors are forming a closer relationship with locals than politicians on the national and European levels. They identify themselves with 'their' city of which they are proud of and they want to be re-elected. Over the years, I have noticed that the economic success of a city is not all that important to residents anymore- they expect local governments to show that they can offer a decent quality of life by preserving the local environment and integrating all parts of the local society. 

What does ICLEI hope to achieve in 2013?

ICLEI's main task is to create pioneer examples and then distribute them amongst a large number of cities. For the year 2013 and beyond, we have set ourselves eight agendas. They offer various entry points for various types of cities to engage in sustainable development. Our aim is to develop solutions for the main sustainability challenges together with our members, and then show them to others so they become part of the mainstream. 

What does ICLEI hope to bring to the table at the 7th European Conference on Sustainable Cities and Towns?

We believe that many people feel uncomfortable with the way the financial, environmental and social crises are currently addressed. We want to raise awareness of the correlation between these challenges, and promote interlinked solutions. Cities that have started to develop integrated approaches in various fields will share their experiences with others, and get input from them on how to proceed. The 7th European Sustainable Cities & Towns Conference will be a meeting place between hundreds of experts from numerous places, each one contributing his or her specific experiences, and looking for input from others. That's what we offer. 

Is Europe on the right track as far as Sustainable Cities and Towns are concerned? Describe Europe’s progress in comparison to the rest of the world?

In terms of environmental responsibility, Europe seems to be a place where most believe in the movement towards carbon neutrality, cyclical resource usage and protection of the common good. These goals are being adopted by economic actors, with the aim of building a 'green economy' that can lead innovation on a global scale. In terms of social inclusion, Europe has managed to build the highest level of social security, safety and civic participation worldwide over the last century. However, the processes of economic liberalization and privatization during the past two decades, as well as the recent attempts to tackle the financial crisis, could weaken this asset of a sustainable and stable community.

Stefan Kuhn has been working with ICLEI since 1996 and is Director for Urban Governance since 2002. He is responsible for task co-ordination and supervision; directing ICLEI's involvement in urban governance issues in Europe; project design, management, financial ,and staff supervision of all projects relating to urban governance, trainer and facilitator, author and editor of various manuals, guidebooks and other publications in the field of local sustainability.