Rapid urban growth is one of the most important global challenges affecting all countries across the globe.

By 2030, the United Nations estimates that 60.4% of the world’s population will live in cities. One of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals promotes sustainable cities and communities as a way to address urbanisation. But what does sustainability look like at the local level in neighbourhoods and how is it shaping everyday life in urban communities?

In a recent virtual exhibition ‘Neighbourhood Matters’, which we organised as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science 2020, we discovered that sustainability has very different meanings to different people, depending on their own unique stories and experiences.

As part of this exhibition, we asked urban residents in our partner countries to share photos they took themselves from their own neighbourhood to give a glimpse into what a sustainable urban community and neighbourhood means to them.

From the 35 entries we received from over 14 different cities and we asked our social media followers to choose top ten entries.  The ten selected photographs were presented at the virtual exhibition where the photographers shared with us their own views on sustainability in their local neighbourhoods. Scroll to the bottom to see the winning photographs.

Urbanisation and Urban Neighbourhoods

The photographers shared diverse and unique perspectives of urban sustainability. It was really interesting to see the similarities, and differences, between their own lived experience and academic perspectives on urbanisation and urban issues.

While the definition of urban (and urbanisation) varies from one country to another, for scholars, urbanisation is about the concentration of people. Currently, over 50% of world population live in urban areas, which is expected to rise over 60% by 2050.  As a result of urbanisation people shift their economic activities, from agricultural to industrial/manufacturing and service sector. Urban population tends to have more opportunities for work, studies, and leisure and have a higher living standard.

Urbanisation, however, also poses several challenges. For instance, 1-in-3 people in urban areas live in slums where deprivation is extreme. Poverty in urban areas beyond slums is also on the rise – in fact, poverty has migrated from rural to urban alongside the people who have migrated in hopes of a better living. This is in addition to the adverse effects rapid urbanisation is having on environmental sustainability.

Why Neighbourhoods Matter

When people migrate to the city, their destination matters and the makeup of the neighbourhood is crucial for urban sustainability. Neighbourhoods’ resources, opportunities within them, and their networks are important factors for neighbourhood resilience.

But not all neighbourhoods are the same. Some are hotspots of poverty and segregation. While some have all the opportunities, infrastructure, and resources required for their residents to prosper.

Neighbourhood’s Sustainability – Participants’ Perspectives

As part of our virtual photography exhibition for the 2020 ESRC Festival of Social Science we wanted to hear from residents themselves about why their neighbourhood offered a sustainable place to live, or not. Why photography? Quite simply photographs are a powerful tool that transmit messages and despite cultural and linguistic differences can help people connect to the message in a more emotional way. For our project, we asked the participants to reflect on one theme – what sustainability means to them in their urban neighbourhood?  We asked them to capture the moment as a photograph but also explain to a global audience why it represents sustainability.

The exhibition showed that indeed, sustainability means lots of different things: we received a wide variety of themes and topics. Still, there are some common themes across all the images, that include:

  • social features, such as the importance of public space, connection and interaction between residents,
  • economic opportunities such as the importance of economic vitality and wellbeing,
  • environmental issues, such as sustainable growth with low impact on the environment but also the need to ensure health and sanitation, and
  • cultural characteristics, for example, maintaining heritage and respecting ethnic and religious diversity.

​We also asked participants what ‘sustainability’ meant to them. Here you can see the words they used to describe ‘sustainability’ before the presentation of the images and after. It is interesting to see the shift from ‘longevity’, ‘social cohesion’, ‘community’, ‘inclusivity’, ‘resilience’ and ‘health’ to a stronger emphasis on ‘social cohesion’. What is also notable is that after the presentations, they chose such words as ‘happiness’, ‘adaptability’, ‘diversity’, and ‘continuity’ to describe sustainability. What it shows is that, unlike the academic and policy focus on economic or environmental sustainability, people associate sustainability and sustainable neighbourhoods with being happy, celebrating diversity, and just simply being able to rely on the continued existence of their community.

The audience chose three winning images (scroll to see)

  1. A mix-use neighbourhood (Vatara, Bangladesh), by Tahmina Sultana
  2. Pasig City mega market (the Philippines) by Rhay Daniel R. Racoma
  3. ‘Walk safely’ or ‘safe walking’ (Khulna, Bangladesh) by Nafisa Anjum
What is interesting about these three choices?

The very first image – and the first place – showcases a mix-use neighbourhood in Bangladesh that has a vibrant economic life and daily necessities can be found within walking distance. Interestingly, the second image also focuses on the neighbourhood’s economic activity, this time in the Philippines. The market depicted on the photo ensures economic vitality and sustainability of the neighbourhood and the city.

The third images emphasises the importance of a safe walking environment such as having well-maintained footpaths and roads. As the photographer noted, safe walking reduces anxiety among parents who may worry about their children being outside in unsafe environment, but also increases community pride and decreases pollution.

A neighbourhood with the gist of every social class, Vatara, Dhaka. Credit: Tahmina Sultana.
A neighbourhood with the gist of every social class, Vatara, Dhaka. Credit: Tahmina Sultana.
Pasig City Mega Market, Philippines. Credit: Rhay Daniel R. Racoma.
Pasig City Mega Market, Philippines. Credit: Rhay Daniel R. Racoma.
Walk safely or safe walking, Azizur Rahman Road, Khulna, Bangladesh. Credit: Nafisa Anjum.
Walk safely or safe walking, Azizur Rahman Road, Khulna, Bangladesh. Credit: Nafisa Anjum.
Listening to residents

These unique and personal reflections on neighbourhood sustainability told directly from urban residents are important to listen and respond to. Policymakers and city administrators should note these priorities, and indeed, these interventions are already well-considered both in the Sustainable Development Goals and UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda.

Whilst it is always challenging to implement interventions, strategies should allow for adequate allocation of space for walking and cycling, and put mechanisms in place to ensure local marketplaces and public spaces are vibrant, diverse, and meet the needs of neighbourhood residents right on their own doorstep.