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Is there urban symbiosis between territorial governance and ESG criteria?

Marta Falcão - Head of Urbanism
Marta Falcão – Head of Urbanism

“Sustainability is an old theme when it comes to cities and towns and their relationship with the environment.”

The Aalborg Charter (1994), which followed on from the Maastricht Treaty (1992), emphasised the urgency of defining strategic sustainable development options for urban areas, highlighting the kick-off of local sustainability policies. It called for the strong participation of local administration in the implementation of Agenda 21 and territorial governance.

At that time, emerging concerns about climate change reinforced the urgent need to act, to counteract excessive urban growth and to regulate economic activities that have a significant impact on the environment, implementing corrective actions and giving back to the environment what had been taken from it since the industrial revolution.

In the sustainability trilogy, the economic corner was becoming more and more threatening, the environmental more threatened and the social more fragile. Urban and environmental policies became increasingly aggressive in these areas in order to counteract the disastrous trends that were being predicted. This is where the importance of the current ESG (Environment Social and Governance) criteria for the urban economy and territorial planning began to emerge.

As early as 2014, the World Economic Forum considered environmental risks associated with extreme weather events and natural disasters to be a serious concern with a strong impact on social risks in the coming decades.

Aiming to improve people’s living conditions and quality of life, the United Nations, in defining the 17 SDGs (Agenda 2030, 2015), called on everyone to participate in the successful implementation of these goals. The call has reached everyone, whether central or local government, companies or citizens. Sustainable development is only possible with the re-education of the population, including decision-makers. And they, as the main actors on the scenes of cities and towns, have come to dictate the trends and desires for a healthier planet.

These trends and desires have forced us to rethink the territory, how it is planned, how it is designed, how it is occupied, how it is used and how it is invested in.

National environmental and land use planning policies promote the integration of directives into territorial management instruments, making them converge with climate change mitigation and adaptation policies. Cross-cutting changes have been and are necessary in all sectors – housing, education, health, mobility, energy – requiring an integrated, inclusive and capable thinking of presenting efficient and lasting solutions.

The efficiency of change could be based on a concept of urban symbiosis, where the private sector and the public sector at the same interface promote the circular economy, intercept wills and capacities, where each offers its purpose, in conjunction with ESG criteria and the full concept of territorial governance.

Urban symbiosis highlights the importance of considering concepts such as: sustainability and intergenerational solidarity; economy; coordination of public and private interests; subsidiarity; equity; citizen participation and intervention; responsibility; contractualisation and consultation; legal security; governance and governability.

The goals reflected in these concepts highlight the integrated nature of the planning process based on the circular economy, both for the implementation of new sustainable solutions and in the solution of corrective actions. They also encompass the several aspects of territorial systems, focusing on people’s living and working conditions, cultural, environmental and landscape values, employment opportunities, economic and productive structures, forms of land use and occupation, and the profitability and creation of infrastructures.

There are already several examples of greater or lesser success of evident urban symbiosis, almost always associated with local branding, such as the Oeiras Valley, Marvila or even Lisbon’s East Side.

This process of symbiosis is therefore a potential success factor, which will inevitably generate stronger relationships between planners, politicians, investors and citizens, once again emphasising the importance of ESG for all urban players.

Thus, it results in an integrated process in which interests and values associated with the three basic components of territorial organisation: the environment, the population and the economy. Making these elements compatible should result in a land use model that respects the principles of harmony, balance and sustainability. This is the great challenge facing this process of “transformation towards liquid, climate-resilient, circular and nature-positive economies, promoting socio-economic opportunities based on local capacity, needs and individual environmental conditions” (U7, News, 20/4/2023).


Opinion article by Marta Falcão – Head of Urbanism, published in Ambiente Magazine on 16th June 2023

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