Captured: What do desirable and sustainable cities look like?

  • 2022•11•07     Bonn

    © UN Climate Change

    A picture is worth a thousand words. Using the power of visualization and imagination, the Transformative Urban Coalitions project (TUC) supported by the International Climate Initiative of the German Government asked for submissions of photos showing what a desirable and sustainable city looks like.

    Photographers from all kinds of backgrounds captured scenes and provided explanations to demonstrate what makes urban life around the world better in their eyes. Submissions were made by people from 24 different countries, from 15 years to 60 years old, capturing urban life in 32 countries across five continents.

    The photos were assessed on several criteria by an international jury including Oscar-winning filmmaker and photographer Mathilde Bonnefoy, as well Oscar-winning filmmaker and producer Dirk Wilutzky. Criteria included appropriateness to the theme of the contest, storytelling impact, creativity and originality, and composition. A selection of photos and stories are displayed in an interactive exhibition at the Capacity-building hub during UNFCCC’s COP 27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

    Besides yielding impressive photos, this competition also has a research component, following the project’s transformative research and communication approach. “This is more than just a collection of photos. People have shared their stories with us, which helped us to see urban areas through the eyes of the contestant, showing inspiring cases of how to make our cities better. It was the first time we tried such an approach and results are impressive,” says Arianna Flores-Corral, Communications Analyst at United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS). An analysis of the photos and the related explanations sheds a light on what features of desirable and sustainable cities are universal, and where interesting patterns could be detected.

    Overall, a total of 131 unique keywords were found after the data had been processed. They could be clustered into groups, providing insight into how the contestants envision urban futures. Most mentions address features like solar power, or sustainable buildings that are found to be key for better cities. Next is urban nature, covering green areas or trees, but also the importance to reduce impacts from disaster events like floods. Furthermore, aesthetic aspects matter to the contestants, for example when describing the area captured as beautiful or charming. The most named keywords are “green, beautiful, safe, creative and resilient”.

    Results show nuances between continents. The most named keywords from Africa describe urban features – the top three being “beautiful, clean and inclusive”, whereas the Americas’ top keywords describe aesthetical values – “green, inclusive and modern”. In Asia it is “green, beautiful, safe”, and finally Europe shows a stronger focus on mobility, with words like “bicycle, green and public transport”.

    Interestingly, differences are also found between genders. While female contestants comparably name community, justice and safety aspects more, men focused on mobility and urban features. “The results show us what people appreciate about cities. They make clear that most do not only want their city to function, but also to serve as a home, as something beautiful and enabling. At the same time it also highlights existing challenges and potential solutions on the local scale, from urban agriculture to recycling to community engagement,” says Simone Sandholz, Head of the Urban Futures and Sustainability Transformation (FAST) programme at UNU-EHS.

    In a next step, the COP27 exhibit will not only display the outcomes of the contest, but should also serve to collect further data, by asking visitors their opinion.