Event report on the SDGs Symposium 2023 Cities and Nature: exploring linkages and designing solutions for sustainability

April 13, 2023

The University of Tokyo and Springer Nature jointly organized a symposium on cities, nature, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on 28 February 2023. This was the fourth SDGs Symposium between the University of Tokyo and Springer Nature, following three symposia in 2019, 2021 and 2022, each focusing on a separate Sustainable Development Goal. The 2023 symposium focused on SDG11— “Sustainable Cities and Communities” and its intersections with other SDGs. This reflected the consensus between the organizing teams that the rapid pace of urbanization observed globally has important ramifications for sustainability, especially in relation to shifts in lifestyles and consumption patterns that affect nature in ever-increasing distances. Many urban processes, ranging from consumption and waste generation to access to infrastructure and resources, sharpen inequalities within and between cities and between urban and rural areas. 

The thematic focus of the 2023 SDGs Symposium on cities, nature and sustainability aligns well with the underlying long-term goal of this series of symposia to share the significance of adopting an integrated intellectual approach (“Sougouchi”) to solve global sustainability challenges, by including in the discussion both experienced scholars and practitioners and the next generation of scholars. 

To reflect these goals, the 2023 SDGs Symposium brought together leading international academics and publishers with long experience on cross-cutting themes of cities, nature, and sustainability, with emerging academics and students from Japan. There was special attention to achieve inclusivity among the speakers in terms of disciplines, affiliation, gender, and stage of their career. The speakers included two globally leading international academics (Prof. Bai, Prof Elmqvist), the Editor-in-Chief of Springer Nature (Sir Campbell), the Chief Editor of Nature Sustainability (Dr. Contestabile) and two up-and-coming academics from Japan (Dr. Soga, Dr. Shimpo). The SDGs Symposium was hosted by the Institute for Future Initiatives (IFI), which represents a hub of researchers practicing integrated research efforts within the University of Tokyo.

The Opening Remarks by President Teruo Fujii from the University of Tokyo set the tone of the 2023 SDGs Symposium. President Fujii’s remarks focused on the major ramifications of current urbanization trajectories for nature. He pointed out that urban activity is directly linked to biodiversity loss and climate change, creating multi-dimensional sustainability challenges that are difficult to be solved by a single stakeholder group or academic discipline. In this spirit, the President emphasized the necessity of adopting integrated intellectual approaches (“Sougouchi”) as well as creating places where convergence of knowledge can take place. Subsequently, he introduced major relevant initiatives currently implemented within the University of Tokyo, which highlight the importance of universities fostering hospitable environments for transdisciplinary collaborations and partnerships with stakeholders outside universities, including the private sector. 

In the first Keynote Presentation, Prof. Xuemei Bai from the Australian National University, provided insights about how urbanization transitions intersect with nature close to and faraway from cities. Beyond focusing on observed patterns and impacts of urbanization, Prof. Bai touched on possible approaches to identify solutions through local sustainability-oriented experiments and interdisciplinary collaborations, and the work conducted by the Earth Commission. Subsequently, Sir Phillip Campbell from Springer Nature shared during the second Keynote some of the discussions he has been involved on urban nature-based solutions through the World Economic Forum. He then proceeded to outline some of the main considerations and factors for ensuring that urban sustainability research is adopted by practitioners and policymakers in order to create actual impact.  

The four Panel Presenters outlined different critical issues related to how cities and nature interact, and their implications for sustainability. Prof. Thomas Elmqvist (Stockholm University) outlined key research questions that are currently emerging for urban sustainability and SDG11, highlighting especially some of the main differences in research priorities between the Global South and the Global North. Dr. Masashi Soga (The University of Tokyo) commented on why human-nature relations are critical for urban livability and the wellbeing of city residents, as well as how urbanization patterns can alter these relations. Dr. Naomi Shimpo (Hyogo University) critically discussed how urban gardening can create strong human-nature relations in cities with positive effects for social cohesion, but also important ramifications for equity of access, using case studies from Europe and Japan. Dr. Monica Contestabile (Chief Editor, Nature Sustainability), commented on the importance and challenges of bridging urban science and policy, and the importance of considering the context within which urban scholarship takes place. 

Given the very broad nature of SDG11, the thematic focus of each Keynote and Panel Presentation was deliberately tailored to reflect different aspects of the interface between cities and nature, using different disciplinary lenses. This created a good overview of major current patterns, research challenges, and key research priorities at this interface. Beyond their distinct thematic focus, each presentation touched on the equity ramifications of this relationship, and why and how transdisciplinary research is necessary to understand phenomena at the interface of cities and nature as well as to design solutions to enhance urban sustainability. 

Finally, Prof. Yasuko Kameyama (the University of Tokyo) coordinated a panel discussion consisting of all speakers. This panel discussion provided insights based on the experience of the speakers engaging with research, publishing and practice at the interface of cities and the SDGs. The main topics that were discussed during the Panel included (a) how technology can affect the interface of cities and nature in the future; (b) what is the feedback between equity and urban planning in the Global North and Global South, (c) how to upscale innovations and local sustainability experiments to enhance urban sustainability, (d) whether and how citizens can play a role in improving the adoption and implementation of responses for urban sustainability, (e) how to improve and facilitate the engagement of scholars from the Global South and marginalized groups  (especially early career researchers) on high-impact research with societal impact. Overall, the symposium was closely related to  "The New University Model" of the University of Tokyo.

Of the approximately 1,400 registered participants from 97 countries, 453 participants attended the 2023 SDGs Symposium. 63 attended in person at Ito International Research Center, the University of Tokyo and 390 online from different parts of the world. Approximately 56% of the online audience joined from Japan and 44% from other countries. Beyond academic and research institutions, many of the participants were affiliated with the private sector, government agencies, and civil society, showing the transdisciplinary appeal of the event. Many registrants were students and early career researchers.  

Before the proceedings of the SDGs Symposium, a poster session was held where undergraduate and postgraduate students from the University of Tokyo and other Japanese universities presented their work to the speakers and the audience. In total, 10 student posters were presented capturing different aspects of the interface of cities and nature. Of these, 6 posters were presented by students of the University of Tokyo and 4 from other Japanese universities. Some of the topics of the posters included, how urban green roofs can enhance sustainability, what ecosystem services are provided by trees in university campuses, or the effect of green spaces on urban heat island effect. Beyond understanding phenomena at the interface of cities, nature, and sustainability, several posters proposed innovative solutions to enhance urban sustainability by leveraging the role of urban nature and infrastructure. Regardless of their focus, all posters employed interdisciplinary approaches, further showing the necessity and value of adopting integrated intellectual approaches for critical sustainability challenges. The poster selection committee was impressed by the overall quality of the projects, which reflected the high-caliber work conducted by emerging researchers within and outside the University of Tokyo. The poster session allowed the students to receive feedback and encouragement from the speakers and audience of the Symposium.

[Upper Column] From left, President Fujii, Professor Bai, Sir Campbell, Dr. Bouquet (Managing Director, Springer Nature Japan), who addressed the closing remarks. 
[Lower Column] Panel Discussion (from left, Professor Kameyama, Professor Bai, Sir Campbell, Professor Elmqvist, Professor Soga, Professor Shimpo, Dr. Contestabile)
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