With two-thirds of the world’s population expected to live in urban areas by 2050, forests are critical part of the solution to the unprecedented demand for water, food and energy that these cities will face, senior United Nations officials said Wednesday, on the International Day of Forests.
“How we manage forests will determine how we meet this demand,” said Manoel Sobral Filho, Director of the UN Forum on Forests Secretariat (UNFFS).
He noted that growth and shifts in population, changes in climate, and innovation in knowledge and technology will undoubtedly impact future forests. “One thing I am certain of, investing in forests is essential for securing a sustainable future for communities the world over,” he added.
In his video message for the Day, José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said that “well-managed forests and trees in and around cities provide habitats, food and protection for many plants and animals, helping to maintain and increase biodiversity.”
This year, the International Day, observed annually on 21 March, will focus on the interlinkages between the sustainable management of forest and sustainable cities.
It is estimated that by 2050, more than half of the world’s population will face water stress. Given that forested catchments provide three-quarters of all freshwater used worldwide, safeguarding the water-providing capacity of forests is even more urgent.
Trees in cities help regulate climate, store carbon, and reduce flooding and storm water runoff. Sustainable forest management and sustainable forest products offers some of the most effective and cost-competitive natural carbon capture and storage options available.
Forests are home to over 80 per cent of biodiversity on land, and urban forests and city parks can provide important habitat for migratory birds and other fauna and flora.
Sustainable Development Goal 15 of the 2030 Agenda, adopted in 2015 by world leaders, calls for action to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss” by 2030.
The UN Strategic Plan for Forests 2030 envisions “a world in which all types of forests and trees outside forests are sustainably managed, contribute to sustainable development and provide economic, social, environmental and cultural benefits for present and future generations.”
At UN Headquarters in New York, the Day is being celebrated with a special event featuring speeches by prominent officials, including Liu Zhenmin, UN Under-Secretary-General for Social and Economic Affairs.
Pakistani innovators design cheap and climate-friendly flat-pack homes for refugees
Three years ago, Mohammed Saquib and his fellow students Yaseen Khalid and Nabeel Siddiqui were seeking inspiration for their final year university project. The Syrian crisis was at its peak and with the plight of refugees filling news bulletins, they decided to try to address the desperate need of some of the world’s most vulnerable people for shelter.
As they began their research, they discovered that Pakistan itself was facing a shortage of 10 million houses, with many people living in overcrowded, unsanitary informal settlements.
“There was no innovation in the construction industry in Pakistan and so we realized we needed to make a prototype, a house that could be assembled by anyone in minimal time and should be affordable as well,” said Saquib, who studied civil engineering at NED University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi.
Post-graduation, the trio founded ModulusTech, a startup that produces low-cost, energy efficient, flat-pack modular homes that can be used to house refugees but could also serve non-governmental organizations or government agencies seeking to build classrooms or health clinics in rural areas. The houses can also be used in the construction and tourism sectors.
“Each house is 16×16 square feet, with electricity and plumbing and everything pre-integrated in the panel walls. Each house costs around US$3,000 and the lifespan is about 30 years. The houses can be assembled in just three hours, using three people,” said Saquib.
“Primarily, we were targeting refugees and internally displaced people and we wanted them to be able to assemble these houses and get a feeling of ownership … According to a United Nations report, a refugee stays on average 17 years in temporary shelter so we designed (the house) according to this,” the 26-year-old added.
The houses are built around a steel frame with walls made of recyclable materials such as fibre cement composites and wood plastic composites. Glass wool insulation ensures the houses are energy-efficient and cost-effective. It is estimated that a ModulusTech house has a carbon footprint that is up to 52 times lower than traditional concrete homes.
When the team tested the homes in the Thar desert, where the outside temperature was around 50 degrees Celsius, the temperature inside was around 35 degrees, Saquib says.
In 2017, ModulusTech was accepted into The Nest I/O, a Pakistani startup incubator. Since then, the team has won a slew of awards and was selected by the Pakistani office of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to represent the country at the world’s first Global Manufacturing Industrial Summit in Germany last year.
ModulusTech hopes that government departments or relief agencies will buy its houses to set up in refugee camps or other settlements where displaced people are gathered. Pakistan is home to around 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, and around 400,000 people have been displaced internally by conflicts, violence or extreme weather events like floods.
ModulusTech won a grant from UN Environment as part of the Asia-Pacific Low-Carbon Lifestyles Challenge, which supports young people with cutting-edge ideas to foster energy-efficient, low-waste and low-carbon lifestyles.
“With this money, we have set up our own factory and we have labour and a proper manufacturing facility,” Saquib said, adding that the business training offered as part of the award was also very useful.
Dechen Tsering, UN Environment’s director for the Asia-Pacific region, said ModulusTech’s innovation was an example of the ingenuity needed to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems, with this project particularly geared toward helping some of the most vulnerable people.
Around one billion people live in informal settlements around the world, with millions more living in buildings that are not environmentally friendly. Rapid urbanization and economic growth challenge communities to sustainably expand capacity, heightening the need for innovation in building systems and infrastructure.
“Improving lifestyles across Asia and the Pacific must be an inclusive endeavour, and Mohammed … (is) demonstrating how we can get it done,” Tsering said.
Global ingenuity and innovation across all sectors will take centre-stage at the fourth UN Environment Assembly in March. The motto for that meeting is to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.
So far ModulusTech has sold around 30 units, mostly to businesses in the construction industry who sought structures for washrooms and site offices. They are also in talks with United Nations agencies about possible uses for their product.
As they seek to build their market, the team are already working to upgrade their basic model by installing a solar-powered water purification system. They are also incorporating a second storey into their designs.
For Saquib, architects, designers and engineers have a critical role in fighting for a better environment, but education is also key.
“As a nation, we really don’t care about climate change now. Signing a Paris (climate change) agreement or creating a Pakistan vision for 2025 will not solve this issue. You have to go to ground level,” he said. “Global warming and our response in Pakistan should be part of the schools’ curriculum … It is the government’s duty to raise awareness of this issue.”
He admits it is frustrating that the environmental benefits of ModulusTech’s flat-pack housing is not recognized locally.
“We have built this house and nobody is looking at how sustainable it is, for example that the lifespan is 30 years. No one cares about that,” he said, adding that this lack of knowledge means designers must also take on the mantle of educators.
“We must educate but we have to take baby steps. People just care about the cost. They don’t care about the energy analysis,” he said. “But we are trying our best to educate them, and we really highlight our achievements, like the fact that the houses save 45 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per house. That’s a huge thing right now.”
The sky’s the limit as architects design UN17 eco-village in Copenhagen
It’s a building project with towering ambitions—to use all 17 of the UN’s Global Goals as a sustainability blueprint for a 35,000-square-metre eco-village being built on the southern outskirts of Copenhagen.
Amid dire warnings about the need to rapidly rein in carbon dioxide emissions, Danish architects Lendager Group, and project partners Årstiderne Arkitekter, want their 400-home development in Ørestad South to set a new standard for sustainable construction.
“We see the Sustainable Development Goals as a global tool with a holistic approach to the world’s sustainability challenges. A tool and a language that can be understood across sectors and countries,” Lendager says in its project description for the UN17 Village development.
UN17 Village will house 830 people, including around 175 children and 100 older residents. Five housing blocks will be built using recycled concrete, wood and glass. Some of the construction materials will be sourced from Lendager UP, the branch of Lendager that provides upcycled building materials, and the company will also use various subcontractors.
Construction is due to begin at the end of 2019, or early 2020, depending on the weather, and the work is scheduled to be completed in 2023.
It seems fitting that this innovative project is going ahead in Copenhagen. The Danish capital was the 2014 European Green Capital and aims to become carbon neutral by 2025.
For Lendager chief executive officer and company founder Anders Lendager, the development will act as a compass to guide others, including governments, businesses and individuals, towards sustainability in construction.
“The real change in the building sector still awaits but the tipping point is close,” he said. “We need to use the Sustainable Development Goals, the circular economy, upcycling, etc. as tools to create regenerative buildings and cities that give back and restore what we have destroyed over the past decades.”
There can be no denying the urgent need to reimagine our cities: UN Environment’s latest Emissions Gap Report showed that global carbon dioxide emissions rose again during 2017, after a three-year hiatus, to reach historic levels. Only 57 countries are on track to bridge their emissions gap—the space between where their emissions levels are likely to be and where they need to be.
Cities and urban settlements must be at the heart of renewed efforts to cut emissions. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to live in cities, and urban areas already account for 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.
“In response to multiple challenges facing our cities, integrated urban systems offer a way to cater for infrastructure that is key for quality of life, while enabling cumulative gains for resource efficiency and addressing climate change,” said Martina Otto, head of the Cities Unit at UN Environment.
“At UN Environment, we support policies and technical solutions that spur greater integration across sectors that usually are planned, designed and operated in silos. In terms of scale, the neighbourhood is particularly suited to being an innovation lab and delivering proof of concept. But we don’t stop there; we work towards bringing these good examples to scale, engaging across the different levels of governance and through public-private partnerships,” she said.
As well as addressing poverty, hunger, inequality and environmental degradation, the Sustainable Development Goals include specific targets to make cities and settlements “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Lendager and its partners took this challenge to heart and their designs came out on top in a competition to select architects for the UN17 Village project.
The development will include rainwater collection facilities capable of recycling 1.5 million litres of water each year. The water will be treated and recirculated and used in the wash house and in the bath house. Water heating will be based on geothermic energy, while solar panels will also be used. Each building will also have a rooftop garden.
“The buildings are designed to limit energy consumption and to produce and recycle energy,” Lendager said. “Focusing on universal access to energy, increased efficiency and the use of renewables is crucial to create resilience to environmental issues like climate change.”
One cluster of buildings is designed to produce more energy than it needs and will distribute power and heating to other buildings, testing the efficacy of a smart closed system.
The building complexes, as well as individual apartments, are designed to be resilient to climate change with vegetation and green areas to help counteract the loss of vegetation and biodiversity caused by urban growth.
There will be around 3,000 square-metres of communal spaces for residents and the people of Ørestad. There will also be a conference centre, an organic restaurant, greenhouses and food-sharing and food-growing facilities.
The innovative project is an example of the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that UN Environment hopes will abound at March’s fourth UN Environment Assembly. The motto for the meeting is: think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.
“The innovations we are introducing provide solutions for a new, more inclusive and less harmful way of doing things,” Lendager says. “Sixty per cent of the housing needed by 2030 globally has not yet been built. The UN17 Village shows how we can support growing populations without compromising on sustainability.”
As part of its bid to tackle poverty, the project will provide 100 unskilled jobs for marginalized workers and challenge contractors to include them in their teams. The Village also aims to produce enough food for 30,000 meals every year by growing crops on the roofs and in the greenhouses.
“The crops will be served in the local restaurant, which will also help distribute the leftovers for free. We also want to integrate a food waste handling system by offering a designated area where people can share and pick up redundant food for free. The production of vegetables reduces transport costs and emissions, but it also plays an important role in community-building and education,” Lendager says.
He believes cities must ultimately become regenerators of energy, water, biodiversity, materials and humanity but admits mindsets still need to change.
“We are seeing examples of sustainability emerging in commercial housing, social housing, office buildings and so on—projects showing that sustainable buildings are a better investment. But we still have work to do.”
Learning Cities Award Winners
The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) announced that the winners of the 2019 UNESCO Learning City Award are: Aswan (Egypt), Chengdu (China), Heraklion (Greece), Ibadan (Nigeria), Medellín (Colombia), Melitopol (Ukraine), Petaling Jaya (Malaysia), Santiago (Mexico), Seodaemun-gu (Republic of Korea), and Sønderborg (Denmark). According to the Learning City Award Jury, these cities have shown exemplary progress and commitment to promote education and lifelong learning at the local level.
Inspiring practices at a glance
Despite their very different starting points and the various economic, political, social and environmental contexts, all of the UNESCO Learning City Award 2019 winners have initiated innovative and target-specific policies and programmes that provide fruitful opportunities for their communities to benefit from lifelong learning.
The Egyptian city of Aswan, for example, has developed a strategy that integrates a variety of projects, including gardening and water-conservation programmes in schools, as well as diverse entrepreneurial training opportunities for all groups of society. In Chengdu, China, several examples of best practice in lifelong learning are taking place: for instance, an innovative programme that combines learning with walks around the city has been established, with each route focusing on a different subject area such as regional features, traditional cultures and modern industry, demonstrating a smart use of public and non-public resources.
With its ‘Fit for All’ programme, the Greek city of Heraklion has found an innovative and fun way to bring its citizens and the refugees residing in the city closer together by promoting equity and inclusion through sports and educational activities based on subjects such as local culture and tradition. The city has also developed effective monitoring and evaluation approaches. Meanwhile, in Ibadan, Nigeria, a recent festival of learning offered interactive and varied activities and workshops for different target audiences, thereby reinforcing the concept of lifelong learning in the community. The city has also developed concrete objectives as part of its learning city plan and strong initiatives to engage important local groups such as ethnic minorities in rural areas.
Medellín, in Colombia, coordinates a number of innovative programmes, including one that has helped to successfully reintegrate over 4,650 school drop-outs by engaging with them on a one-to-one basis. The ‘How Are We Doing?’ monitoring and evaluation project is another important component of Medellin’s learning city initiative. In Ukraine, Melitopol has been making marked progress in becoming a learning city, and has put considerable effort into the retraining of internally displaced people that were previously engaged in the mining industry.
Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, has made great strides to improve access to public learning spaces, providing free bus services across four city routes, which also double as information disseminators through their on-board screens. The city is also making good use of the resources provided by the partners. In the Mexican city of Santiago, citizens have access to a great range of free classes, including robotic courses for children and anti-bullying training. The city has also developed a framework of indicators that enable the monitoring and evaluation of its learning city development progress.
In a great example of how to optimally utilize one’s surroundings, Seodaemun-gu, in the Republic of Korea, has taken advantage of its many high-rise apartments by creating small learning communities that teach 50 courses each year in citizens’ living rooms. The city also counts with a strong monitoring and evaluation mechanism. Finally, the Danish city of Sønderborg has promoted sustainability far beyond its formal education system, and created a coordinated structure for stakeholder involvement that will ensure continued progress as a learning city. The city has developed a ‘4–17–42’ strategy, where ‘4’ stands for the city’s four political commitments (environmental, economic, social and cultural), ‘17’ represents the city’s commitment to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and ‘42’ represents the 42 features included in the UNESCO GNLC’s Key Features of Learning Cities.
The awards will be delivered during a ceremony at the 2019 International Conference on Learning Cities in Medellín, Colombia.
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