According to Meadowcroft, the concept still has utility and appeal, despite the probability that the international process on sustainable development is essentially moribund. This was highlighted by recent efforts on climate-change negotiations – almost no world leaders attended the Rio+20 meeting, despite enthusiasm at the original Rio summit, and the outputs of Rio+20 were “almost embarrassing”.

Classically defined as “meeting the needs of this generation without compromising the needs of the next”, sustainable development can be thought of as having three pillars – the environment, the economy and society. This can, however, lead to a “two-out-of-three ain’t bad” philosophy, Meadowcroft explained, with the environment often being “the pillar that does the compromise”. What’s more, some nations’ sustainable development plans are “just like glossy pamphlets” without a strong strategy. Indeed, the Canadian government, said Meadowcroft, now prefers the term “responsible resource development” over sustainable development.

While many developed states have improved their air and water quality, the total burdens on the environment continue to rise because policy and efficiency gains have been swamped by growth as more people adopt high-consumption lifestyles.

Stretching the limits

Meadowcroft says that we must put living within our environmental limits at the core of the political debate – there are some limits “we ignore at our peril” – as well as targeting the “extensive growth” economy. The problem with limits is that they’re uncertain and complex – there are lots of them and they interact. But he does believe that sustainable development is compatible with a market economy. Meadowcroft’s conclusion? Sustainable development is not dead but its achievement demands political struggle for a politics of limits, and a discussion about population, consumption, work and the benefits system. “It’s no longer about the environment, it’s about us,” he said. The field needs “revitalization from the base” as the UN won’t act until there’s demand.

So where does sustainable place-making fit in? Meadowcraft believes that it’s a critical terrain that can link individuals, communities, ecosystems, economic activities, and cultural landscapes and identities, as well as improving immediate living experiences and empowering citizens to push for broader system change.

Urban health

Earlier in the day, delegates heard that by 2050, two-thirds of the projected nine billion population will live in cities. According to Tony Capon of the University of Canberra, Australia, this offers a massive opportunity for sustainable place-making as the world will need to house an extra 2–3 billion people. As Capon explained, the health risks associated with living in cities in developed countries have evolved over the years, from infectious and respiratory disease in the 1800s due to overcrowding, poor sanitation and toxic pollutants in the work environment, to air pollution until legislation improved air quality, and on to traffic injuries, obesity and climate change. The layout and public transport infrastructure of a city can contribute to factors such as obesity and diabetes, Capon explained. Indeed a 2003 study found that inhabitants of cities that sprawled wider were less physically active and weighed more.

In a rare bit of good news, Capon stressed that there will be health co-benefits from action on greenhouse gases, since more climate-friendly forms of energy will also improve air pollution, lower carbon-intensity transport is likely to promote walking, cycling and use of public transport – all of which increase physical activity and so could improve mental health – and lower-carbon food choices will probably lead to a vegetable-rich healthy diet. Capon says that we need a new narrative aligning human and planetary health.

Restore or preserve?

The “new wunderkind on the block”, meanwhile, is ecological restoration, which provides a much-needed positive message, according to Susan Baker of Cardiff University, UK. But restoration can’t necessarily achieve the biodiversity and ecosystem services of an intact wild system. While more research on ecosystem recovery is needed, “preservation not restoration” should be the goal. There’s also the social dimension to consider – such techniques are not popular with everyone. As Baker pointed out, the EU biodiversity strategy aims to restore 15% of degraded ecosystems by 2020, but what if the land under consideration is your garden? Attempts to restore prairie habitat in the mid-west US have been hampered by the need to destroy non-native woodlands used for recreation by local people. “What time do you put the baseline?” asked Baker. “Should it be pre-Colombian, before the Ice Age…?” There are many difficult trade-offs to make.

Baker believes that ecological restoration is “not a panacea, despite what the UN and EU are saying”. But it’s big business now and will be happening more and more so it needs to be delivered within a sustainable framework.

• Find out more about the Cardiff International Conference on Sustainable Place Making