With geopolitical shifts, the increasingly severe impacts of climate change, challenging political trends and more, it is becoming more and more difficult to say what the future holds. But sustainable development requires long-term planning, and crucial decisions need to be made now.

Urban development is no exception. The world’s cities have a huge and growing environmental footprint. At the same time, they offer unique opportunities for innovative development, as they pack workplaces, housing and leisure in relatively small geographical areas, while also allowing people to develop and realize a diverse range of values: environmental, economic, social and cultural.

By 2030, it is projected that more than 60% of the world’s population will be urban. So how do we make sure those urban residents will have the safety, the decent homes and the services they need – and in the most sustainable way possible?

“It actually felt as if the discussions in our group started in minor, but they ended in major. This workshop has really given me new perspectives on the way we work.”

– Mia Häggström, Sustainability Manager, Fabege

A role for the property industry

The property industry has a vital role to play in creating sustainable societies and realizing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The time when property developers were simply asked to construct a building are long gone; today they are expected to offer solutions that contribute to social sustainability while minimizing environmental impacts. But as was highlighted at the workshop organized by SEI and Fabege, the industry’s potential contribution is much greater.

In 2018, SEI and Fabege launched a joint project to better understand how the company, and the property management and development industry as a whole, can better contribute to sustainable development of Stockholm city and region by 2050, guided by the 2030 Agenda.

At the workshop, held at Stockholm’s Friends Arena, SEI and Fabege invited a broad range of stakeholders and experts to discuss how local politicians, scientists, businesses and civil society can work together for sustainable urban and regional development.

The workshop, which took place on 19 March, used explorative scenario methodology and group discussions to jointly explore four possible futures and the possible impacts of urban development decisions.

“The exciting thing about the exercises at this workshop was that, by gathering such a breadth of stakeholders to work together, during the day we ended up fostering new thinking and practising integration, learning and inclusive participation.”

– Kristian Skånberg, SEI Associate

Four priorities for the property sector

In the scenario exercises, the risk of social tensions came up as a central challenge the property industry could address under all the different futures. Income disparities, housing segregation, and poor relations between urban and rural areas were all seen as potential sources of tension that could be partially addressed by planning inclusive, diverse communities with shared meeting places.

Competing demands on particular properties or locations – between different residents and different uses and services – also need to be resolved. With greater focus on multifunctionality, land and spaces could meet more needs and also contribute to environmental sustainability; for instance, parks and rooftop gardens could be used for both food production and recreation, in the process producing cleaner air and supporting biodiversity. Similarly, office spaces could be made available for residents to use during evenings and weekends.

The discussions identified four areas the property management industry might focus on in order to contribute to long-term societal value consistent with the 2030 Agenda. They were:

  1. Develop inclusive and secure communities: mixing lower-income and higher-income households, residents with different cultural backgrounds, different age groups etc., for the benefit of all. These communities should create opportunities for learning and integration.
  2. Make efficient use of the city’s surfaces and spaces – applying to energy, transport, housing, offices, common areas, cultivation (e.g. roofs and walls). Green areas are an important aspect of this. There is a need for creative thinking to identify all the different ways green space development could create value for the city and its residents.
  3. Apply and encourage resource efficiency in energy and material use, including recycling and reuse. This would help to reduce greenhouse emissions and other negative impacts linked to the production and disposal of goods, as well as easing pressure on finite natural resources. Goods could be shared or passed from owner to owner on a much greater scale than today, for example via car pools, tool-sharing hubs or give-one-take-one book corners in coffee shops. The property industry can facilitate this by providing appropriate spaces.
  4. Support a well-functioning urban-rural relationship. Realize that urban areas are dependent on the surrounding rural areas for recreational activities, eco-system services, and ensuring national and regional food self-sufficiency. Plan for urban areas to be strongly linked with rural areas.

Along with these priorities, the participants also identified practical solutions and research areas like creating multi-functional meeting places, and integrating artificial intelligence with grid and power storage capacity to more efficiently deal with peaks and troughs in demand.

The property industry cannot do all this alone: it must partner with political and public actors, civil society and researchers, among others. In the coming months, SEI and Fabege will develop a strategic activity programme for collaborative work by the property sector and its partners towards more sustainable cities.

SEI Research Fellow Katarina Axelsson led the workshop. Video: SEI / YouTube.