“We fucked it up. So, it will be us who fix it.”

How do cities solve critical issues – from security to inclusivity, from urban growth to health, from mobility to climate change? It is the ambition of mayors, influencers, public figures, forward-thinking businessmen and activists that matters. The ambition to drive change and to shape cities for the better. We need city changers on all levels and in all aspects of urban life who really dare to be inconvenient.

40 years ago, scientists started seriously warning about climate change. However, nobody listened, nobody cared and pretty much nothing was done to combat it. So, it seems quite astonishing that it was a passionate 16-year-old Swedish girl who ultimately provided the straw that broke the camel’s back to make this global challenge one of the top priorities of our times. Suddenly it seems obvious not only to millions of teenagers around the globe that we have to make changes. Cities in particular take center stage when it comes to this change: they need to massively reduce emissions, become greener, more inclusive, healthier, and more livable. The only question that remains is how on earth do we get there?

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Do we need stricter regulations, carbon taxes, car-bans, a new economic paradigm? Are we waiting for the convenient salvation through the holy grail – new technological solutions? Or will communities miraculously organize themselves in a different way and suddenly act responsibly towards our planet – just like that? I think the answer is “yes” and “no”.

Let’s face it: We fucked it up. So, it will have to be us – every single human on this planet – who fix it. That means we’ll have to do (many) things differently – and we’ll feel it, especially because we humans are not really too fond of changing our behavior. Because of this, I am convinced that what we need above all is bold and uniting leadership on all levels and in all aspects of (urban) life. We’ll need leadership from mayors as much as we need leadership from businesses, public figures, influencers and from the general public. These will be crucial in both developing a positive vision for our future as well as being role models for how to drive the change.

Dare to enter into inconvenient conversations

It is embarrassing that so many political leaders focus more on their re-election than on critical topics: many fear inconvenient conversations. But without actively starting them, how can cities and societies solve any critical issues like health care, pensions, education or climate change? Leaders must have the courage to enter into such conversations and also reframe the discussions around it. Let’s put it this way: reducing private car use in city centres is not a question for or against cars, but rather about clean air, a higher quality of life and public safety.
Ken Livingston, former Mayor of London, is a great example of a brave leader. He was the driving force behind the well-known congestion charge that affected driving in London. This was implemented mainly as a tool for controlling the growth of traffic in the city’s most congested and most substantially polluted area. Ken was a leader who believed it was the right thing to do for the long-term success of London and its citizens. That’s why he did not get tired of entering such difficult discussions: with citizens, the logistics lobby, taxi drivers, the media, etc. The results were impressive: 30 per cent less cars that entered the zone, fewer traffic jams, 15 per cent lower travelling times with only a minimal effect (-0.5 per cent) on the shops within the zone.

Don’t expect to be loved by everyone

Did you know that in Vienna it’s possible to use public transport for only 1 EUR a day with an annual ticket? Since the municipality reduced prices in 2012 – an initiative led by Maria Vassilakou; Vice Mayor of the Green party – the number of travellers with an annual ticket has almost doubled – from 350,000 to 650,000. That is the bright side of the story – an astonishing success. However, most of the Viennese people won’t remember her for this achievement, but rather for another project: “Mariahilferstrasse”, where she made Europe’s largest shopping street more or less car-free. From then on, she felt like “Vienna’s most hated woman” (quoting her at UFGC18). That must have been difficult to swallow. But Maria had a vision. And she was right in following it, proven by pictures, neighbours and now even by shop owners of Mariahilferstraße.

Start with some easy wins

Erion Veliaj, Mayor of Tirana, knows that his city is probably not one known for the fight for greener and healthier cities. But Erion is on a mission – a mission to make his city a better place to live in. This mission includes a very unusual form of ambassadors – children! He started his revolution with a straightforward but effective method: planting trees for the children’s birthdays. This is a measure that can easily be copied elsewhere by anyone who wants to start making change happen.

Think bigger than your term of office

With his #greenlegacy campaign, Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia and recent Nobel Peace Prize winner, leads by example when it comes to implementing bold actions for climate change. He has invited the whole country to be a part of it: Planting 350 million trees in 12 hours required massive efforts. For a country that’s stricken by poverty, wars and a long list of other problems, this initiative, involving all citizen groups, public employees, politicians and the police, had a very positive effect on its communities.

Thanks to my work with Europe’s largest event for sustainable cities, I’ve met a large number of urban leaders and change makers. What has struck me the most, however, is that the secret ingredient that sets apart the most visionary, passionate and effective leaders from the rest appear to be not so secret after all, and are certainly no rocket science. That being said, I want to stress that it might seem easier than it probably is. I am extremely thankful to be able to meet all these passionate people who take responsibility for their communities, particularly those who take their people on a journey into a brighter future. Go City Changers!

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Gerald Babel-Sutter is a passionate changemaker. As the founder and CEO of the URBAN FUTURE global conference (UFGC), he brings together the world’s most passionate mayors, city planners and urban decision-makers. That is how he has gained comprehensive insights into sustainable urbanism, leadership and urban mobility issues. Babel-Sutter completed his studies at Karl-Franzens-University Graz, Montclair State University, NYU, Columbia University and Harvard Business School in the USA.

The UFGC is Europe’s largest event for sustainable cities. In 2020 it will take place in Lisbon from April 1-3. More information here.

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Out of topos 109.