Accelerating urban sustainability by involving youth

ByHindustan Times
Aug 21, 2023 03:20 PM IST

This article is authored by Hitesh Vaidya, director, National Institute of Urban Affairs and Berjis Driver, climate fellow, Youth ki awaaz.

Cities stand as living embodiments of the dreams and realities woven by diverse generations. Each era contributes a unique tapestry, leaving an indelible mark that shapes the path ahead. Challenges faced and milestones achieved are passed on as the torch of progress, an unbroken continuum of evolution.

Smart City (HT File)
Smart City (HT File)

In the intricate dance between urban landscapes and the forces of nature, it is the youth who stand at the forefront of catalysing transformation. The symphony of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss resonates, while the quest for liveable, sustainable, and resilient environments gains paramount importance. This mantle of responsibility, to craft a harmonious co-existence with our planet, falls resolutely upon the young shoulders that carry the aspirations of the global community.

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Our world today is significantly composed of those aged 30 or below, a vibrant demographic representing not only the future but the present driving force of change. By the close of this decade, this exuberant cohort is poised to burgeon to an astounding 57%, infusing vitality and innovation into the fabric of society.

At the heart of this transformative narrative, India emerges as a beacon, harbouring the largest youth populace on the planet. A nation brimming with potential and promise, where youthful energy converges with ancient wisdom, propelling us toward uncharted horizons.

As we stand on the precipice of a new era, the stewardship of our cities and their destinies passes into hands that are unafraid to dream, untethered to convention, and unyielding in purpose. The legacy of urban evolution is not merely inherited; it is an eternal flame carried by those who march ahead, with determination in their stride and the audacity to carve out a future that is vibrant, sustainable, and harmonious.

Therein, capturing the full value of the demographic dividend in the narrow 13-year window indicated by a recent ministry of statistics and programme implementation, government of India. The report is important, not only because India’s youth will play the lead role in nation-building for the future, but also because they are front and centre of carrying the green transition agenda forward. As the ground zero of green transitions, Indian cities must leverage the creative thinking and innovation abilities of youth for desirable climate outcomes. Aligned with the theme of this year’s United Nations International Youth Day, the case for developing green skills and institutionalising youth involvement in urban governance stands stronger than ever in a changing climate. In this regard, the processes through which desired outcomes will be met, will to a great extent involve both these aspects, calibrated to the context of the focus city.

Both have their own respective challenges for bringing into reality. To begin with green skills, the United Nations observes them as ‘knowledge, abilities, values, and attitudes needed to live in, develop and support a sustainable and resource-efficient society.’ From homes to educational institutions and workplaces to informal settings, each can be observed as an enabling environment for green-skilling children, adolescents, and young adults alike.

Through collaborations with private sector entities, climate scientists, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, and non-governmental organisations, even urban local bodies can transform themselves as valuable outlets for green-skilling youth and spreading awareness on sustainable everyday practices. In this regard, of the 75 actions earmarked under Mission LiFE, 19 identified (which have direct involvement of household and city infrastructures) can directly expose youth to urban sustainability.

Furthermore, the public sector has a leading role in green skilling, by firstly laying out the necessary canvas for youth to be motivated to gain green skills and demonstrate environmentally responsible behaviour, among other end goals.

With respect to pertinent examples, the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) by way of its programs and initiatives has already jumpstarted the processes required through its projects and initiatives. For example, its Urban Shift project is working extensively on sustainable mobility, by focusing on transit-oriented development and the creation of non-motorised infrastructure, both essential for youth to embrace and promote sustainable mobility.

Inclusive, healthy, and green neighbourhoods are essential for the early year cognitive development and physical wellness of children, among other long-term benefits and in this regard, NIUA has supported the ministry of housing and urban affairs and other partners in the development of the ‘Infant, Toddler and Caregiver-Friendly Neighbourhood Policy Framework.’ One of the components of its objectives, specifically calls for the need for biodiverse environments, the use of renewable energy sources, and future-oriented green technologies. Early exposure to such aspects can perhaps help reinforce motivations for gaining green skills moving forward.

For young adults, learning and working towards advancing their careers practically in sustainable built environments, experience-based learning is critical, and in this regard, academic and fellowship programs offer a much-needed window. With respect to learning, the Smart Cities and Academia Towards Action Research (SAAR), engages architecture and urban planning students to undertake meticulous field studies, data analysis, and documentation of smart city-related case studies. The Mission fellowships India Smart Cities and National Urban Digital fellowships have nurtured skilled and vibrant young leaders capable of solving a variety of pressing urban problems in the Indian context, while also propelling citizen-centric e-governance programs. En-masse both initiatives help charter a path for students and early-year professionals to continue pursuing the urban sustainability agenda in their own respective ways.

Moving on, the matter of collaborative engagements and institutionalisation of youth involvement in urban governance is also an important aspect aside from skilling and acting. In fact, decisive engagements, and discussions with urban local bodies and other public stakeholders, which involve youth from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, can help inform climate actions more inclusively and for greater impact. This is important particularly for those cities yet to draw up climate action plans. UNSDG 17 particularly calls for fostering networks and partnerships and is important for accelerating national progress on SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities).

The Climate Practitioners India Network serves as a pivotal conduit for the youth, facilitating their integration into a community of like-minded individuals encompassing concerned citizens, visionary entrepreneurs, industrious professionals, aspiring students, and scholarly academicians. This platform not only fosters meaningful connections but also empowers them to collaboratively conceive and implement tangible climate-focused initiatives on the ground.

In addition, orchestrating initiatives aimed at enhancing awareness and catalysing active participation in the pursuit of urban sustainability can emerge as a potent mechanism for engaging the youth on a large scale. These programmes serve as a dynamic avenue to involve and inspire young minds in the collective endeavour of nurturing sustainable cities.

Moreover, the recent National Youth Conclave under the auspices of India's G20 presidency has unfurled a multifaceted canvas of engagement possibilities for the youth. In a symphony of versatile formats, this conclave has artfully woven an intricate tapestry where young minds can immerse themselves. Within this vibrant forum, they find themselves immersed in dynamic discussions, thoughtful deliberations, and meaningful dialogues that intricately navigate the complex domains of urban governance and comprehensive development.

At present through its partnership with Youth Ki Awaaz (India’s largest, UN award-winning online platform for youth to express themselves), NIUA is working with the support of five Indian cities, to create an over-arching, youth-led engagement framework for urban climate action. The framework being developed over the course of a year, seeks to bridge the engagement gaps between local urban authorities and youth for favourable climate outcomes.

Looking ahead, the synergistic relationship between green skilling and the integration of youth into urban governance becomes increasingly apparent. Countless untapped avenues and innovative models of youth engagement remain to be unearthed, recorded, and analysed, with the overarching goal of enhancing the urban landscape in India. The ongoing endeavours of the country's youth to forge sustainable, resilient, inclusive, and vibrant cities demand heightened compassion and backing from stakeholders spanning various sectors. This collaborative approach holds the key to shaping a promising future for Indian cities.

This article is authored by Hitesh Vaidya, director, National Institute of Urban Affairs and Berjis Driver, climate fellow, Youth ki awaaz.

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