By Astrid Zweynert
SEOUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Park Won-soon, the award-winning mayor of Seoul, has made citizens' participation a cornerstone of running the South Korean capital, a model he says cities around the world should adopt to tackle urban challenges.
Park, tipped as a candidate in South Korea's presidential elections next year, said sustainability was a pre-condition for survival but had been treated as an abstract notion that needed to be translated into everyday lives to affect change.
"There are many challenges ahead, and one of the most important ones I face is ensuring the future sustainability of our city," Park said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in his office at Seoul City Hall.
The management of cities has become crucial in achieving new global sustainable development goals as more than half the world's people live in urban settlements, a number forecast to rise to nearly 70 percent by 2050, according to the U.N.
Park said cities have to be leaders in innovation because they have become focal points for addressing challenges, such as population growth, inequality, disease and aging populations.
Cities are also responsible for some 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and two thirds of the world's energy consumption, making them big contributors to climate change.
Park said he hoped a U.N. conference in Quito this week aimed at thrashing out a new 20-year plan for cities would help mayors to adopt a holistic view of tackling these challenges.
"I believe guidelines can be set by the national governments but the real implementation is made by the city governments because they empower citizens to bring about actual change," the 60-year old former human rights activist and lawyer said.
FACING SEOUL'S CHALLENGES
Ravaged by war in the 1950s, Seoul has rebuilt itself as a modern metropolis of 10 million people and has become renowned as a global leader in sustainable city development.
The city has deployed policies to fight climate change, achieve energy self-reliance, and allow people and nature to coexist since Park became mayor in 2011.
However, an aging infrastructure, traffic congestion, pollution and housing shortages are magnified by a population density almost five times that of New York City.
As part of its drive to meet new global development goals, the city launched its 2030 Seoul Plan last year with the aim of creating a community-orientated, safe city, with a strong jobs market, stable housing and easy transportation.
Seoul's model of sustainable development is based on integrating citizens' views into planning, said Park.
"One of my philosophies is that citizens are the mayor...so we have citizens play an integral role in making policies and implementing them," said Park, winner of the prestigious Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development in 2016.
The mayor spearheaded "Sharing City Seoul", with initiatives including sharing unused parking spaces, books and meals, leasing empty rooms, exchanging children's clothes and letting citizens use unused spaces in public buildings.
As a result, the city has fared well on quality of life measures in several studies.
It came seventh in the 2016 Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index, one of only two Asian cities to be in the top 10, propelled by high rankings in health and education indicators.
Another flagship policy, launched in 2012, was aimed a cutting the city's energy consumption by the equivalent of one nuclear power plant's capacity, mainly by engaging citizens in energy-saving and renewable energy generation.
Seoul exceeded the target of the "One Less Nuclear Power Plant" initiative six months ahead of schedule in 2014.
It is now in the second phase of its sustainable energy action plan, aiming to boost electricity generation from renewables and generate 20 percent of electricity within the city's boundaries by 2020, up from around 4 percent in 2013.
Seoul's expertise in building a sustainable city has already been exported to 31 cities in 23 countries, including Vietnam, India, Ethiopia and Iraq by sending experts to consult on water supply, transportation and the use of information technologies in the public sector.
Park said he would like to make sustainable development the norm across the world's cities.
"In the past we had meetings, we had agreements and we had promises but now we're seeing the movement being formed by the grassroots level, the local level, the city government," he said.
(Reporting by Astrid Zweynert; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories)