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Urban Development

Innovation and imagination: The keys to a sustainable urban future

MD Staff

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What makes a city more resilient? In a world faced with the twin challenges of increasing urbanization and climate change, it is paramount to re-think cities so that they are able to face the pressures these changes will bring.

According to the latest report from the International Resources Panel, the future of our cities will depend on their level of resource efficiency and how they are planned, connected and governed.

The Panel’s full report, The weight of cities: Resource requirements of future urbanization, will be released today at the 9th Global Forum on Urban Resilience and Adaptation in Bonn, Germany. (A summary for policy-makers was released in February.)

The report calls for substantial changes in urban form, governance and design, each of which require re-thinking of how cities are created and developed, and in some cases replacing social, economic and political practices.

“We must rethink the way in which we urbanize,” said Panel member Maarten Hajer, co-lead author of the report and Distinguished Professor of Urban Futures at Utrecht University, Netherlands. “City networks constitute a great opportunity for city governments to collaborate and learn from each other. Our report shows we can achieve an urban form that is both socially and ecologically sustainable. Yet the challenge is massive.”

According to ICLEI – the global network of more than 1,500 cities, towns and regions committed to building a sustainable future and the organizers of the Global Forum – a resilient city is defined as one that “is prepared to absorb and recover from any shock or stress while maintaining its essential functions, structures, and identity as well as adapting and thriving in the face of continual change.” Building resilience, the network says, requires identifying and assessing risks, reducing vulnerability, preparing for emergencies, and increasing cities’ capacities to adapt to change.

The Panel’s report supports resilience by encouraging cities to make optimum use of their resources, so as to avoid the risks associated with putting unsustainable burdens on agriculture, energy, industry and transport.

The report recommends:

  • Monitoring the flow of natural resources entering and leaving a city; doing so can help cities develop strategies to manage their resources more efficiently.
  • Establishing a new model for city governance and politics that supports imaginative business propositions and experimentation.
  • Planning a city to have:
    • Compact growth, to economize on the asphalt, concrete, electricity and water consumed in urban sprawl.
    • Better connections through efficient, affordable public transport.
    • Liveable neighbourhoods where design and small city-block size encourage people to walk or cycle.
  • Designing in resource-efficient components such as car sharing, charging point networks for electric vehicles, efficient energy, water and waste systems, smart grids, cycle paths, energy-efficient building, and new heating, cooling and lighting technologies.
  • Developing infrastructure to take advantage of cross-sector efficiency, such as using waste heat from industry in district energy systems, and industrial waste in construction, such as in fly-ash bricks.

In the next 30 years, 2.4 billion people are likely to move to urban areas, bringing the proportion of the global population living in cities by 2050 to 66 per cent.

The annual amount of natural resources used by urban areas is expected to grow from 40 billion tonnes in 2010 to 90 billion tonnes in 2050, an increase of 125 per cent, if changes are not made to how cities are built and designed.

The report calls for a new strategy to meet the needs of 21st century urbanization, and includes recommendations that could result in low-carbon, resource-efficient, socially just cities in which people can live healthy lives.

UN Environment

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Urban Development

Structural Transformation Can Turn Cities into Engines of Prosperity

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By 2050, the population of cities is projected to double from its current size, with nearly 70 percent of the global population residing in urban areas. For many, cities are beacons of hope that offer the prospect of a better job or education, but a new body of research is highlighting how the complex interactions between cities, their surrounding rural areas, and structural transformation can make or break cities as engines of prosperity.  

“Poverty reduction is almost universally accompanied by a transition of the workforce from agriculture into higher-productivity jobs in the manufacturing and service sectors,” said Francisco Ferreira, Acting Director of Research at the World Bank. “Urbanization plays a central role in this process, but getting this right requires an understanding of how cities are shaped by investments in infrastructure as well as human capital.”  

At a recent Policy Research Talk, World Bank Senior Economist Forhad Shilpi shared insights into how to manage this process based on more than a decade’s worth of research spanning many of the world’s poorest countries. According to Shilpi, all cities share certain common features: higher population density, a predominance of non-agricultural activities, a high degree of labor specialization, and a diverse set of economic activities.

But history demonstrates that the underlying economic structure of cities can vary significantly.  Prior to the industrial revolution, cities like ancient Rome grew through concentrated trade and services. The growth of manufacturing in the 19th century produced the modern industrial town, exemplified by Manchester. More recently, knowledge-intensive industries have helped shape post-industrial cities like San Francisco.

According to research by Shilpi and her colleagues, cities in many developing countries still bear a greater resemblance to ancient Rome than to Manchester or San Francisco. In Nepal, for instance, Shilpi found that the size of manufacturing firms in cities was on average no larger than in rural areas and these firms employed no more skilled managerial workers than those in rural areas. Both of these characteristics point to an absence of the kind of high-productivity jobs that are associated with economic specialization.

Worryingly, this pattern applies more generally for cities across South Asia and to an even greater degree for many cities in Africa. According to a widely-cited study published in 2000, African countries are prone to urbanization without economic growth. More recent research has found that African cities are relatively closed to the world, with only half of economic activity taking place in sectors that produce tradable goods and services. Some cities have even been described as consumption cities that live off the proceeds of resource exports rather than more dynamic manufacturing and services sectors.

Despite this depressing portrait, Shilpi still offered her audience cause for optimism. In 1999, Shilpi’s native country of Bangladesh opened the World Bank-supported Jamuna Bridge, which crosses the Jamuna River and connects the rural and poorer northwest part of Bangladesh to the rest of the country. The nearly 5-kilometer bridge brought about a dramatic reduction in trade costs with travel time cut by at least four hours and freight costs reduced by 50 percent.

According to Shilpi and colleagues’ research, the greater integration of the northwest with the rest of Bangladesh following the opening of the Jamuna bridge transformed both rural and urban areas. In the northwest, population density increased and rice yields rose significantly. Manufacturing moved to urban areas, while the agricultural and services sectors generated more employment in rural areas. 

“In 1974, Bangladesh suffered a devastating famine. The northwest region was hardest hit,” said Shilpi. “But by 2010, that region had become the breadbasket of the country.”

Additional research on trade costs in Burkina Faso and Mali confirms a broader point: bringing down trade costs through smart investment in infrastructure can allow rural and urban areas to specialize in the sectors for which they are best suited, with benefits for both rural and urban populations.

Another key element that connects cities to their surrounding areas is internal migration. Cities are almost always the destination of choice for internal migrants, but a study by Shilpi and her colleagues of migration in South Africa suggests that the decision about which city to migrate to is far from arbitrary. The study found that unskilled migrants were more concerned with levels of unemployment across cities, while skilled workers were driven more by wage differences.

The results point to the role that migration can play as an engine for equality between regions—those without jobs move to where the jobs are, while those seeking higher wages move to where wages are higher.

For individual cities, this presents a challenge, since efforts to create new jobs will only have a partial impact on their own unemployment rate. Migration can also further exacerbate inequality within a city, as unskilled job seekers find themselves concentrated in areas lacking basic amenities like electricity that the wealthier residents can afford. Shilpi highlighted the positive role that targeted policies—especially education initiatives targeted to poor areas—can play in helping manage these challenges.

Managing cities not as islands, but as parts of an integrated whole, may serve as one of the most effective methods for building a world without poverty.

World Bank

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Urban Development

Smart housing prototype shows promise in rapidly urbanizing Africa

MD Staff

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photo: UN Environment

Africa is urbanizing fast, as its population grows and many flocks to cities in search of jobs, education and healthcare.

Studies show that hundreds of millions more Africans will live in cities over the next three decades.

Many of these new urban Africans, however, are likely to end up in informal settlements. Already an estimated 200 million Africans live in informal settlements—often without access to energy and sanitation.

The growing class of urban poor need access to decent housing. But the challenge is that the global housing sector already emits almost a third of global greenhouse gas emissions and uses up to 40 per cent of the planet’s total resources. New approaches are clearly needed.

As the housing sector grows—and it must grow if we want an equitable world—we need to reduce its environmental impact, not raise it,” said UN Environment Acting Executive Director, Joyce Msuya. “Smart design is the only way to meet our housing needs and stay within planetary boundaries.”

UN Environment, UN Habitat, the Yale Center for Ecosystems in Architecture and associated partners are working on these designs, one of which is on display at the UN Environment headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

First unveiled at the fourth United Nations Environment Assembly, the 3D-printed modular structure, made from biodegradable bamboo, aims to spark ideas and debate on how future biomaterial processes can help meet the Sustainable Development Goals, Habitat III New Urban Agenda and Paris Agreement.

The pavilion shows how post-agricultural waste—like bamboo, coconut, rice, soy and corn—can be turned into construction materials. It demonstrates solar energy and water systems that make homes self-sufficient and zero carbon. It highlights how micro-farming can be achieved with plant walls. All these features, and more, are integrated, monitored and managed by sensors and digital controls.

“As urbanization gallops forward, people around the world are tired of seeing precious natural habitats paved over with toxic, energy-intensive materials such as concrete and steel,” said Anna Dyson, Director of the Center for Ecosystems in Architecture at Yale University. “In the 21st century, global construction practices must innovate towards nature-based solutions for future cities. Our research consortium with East African collaborators is devoted to advancing state-of-the-art locally produced building systems.”

It is fitting that the pavilion is based in Kenya, as the government there has prioritized affordable housing as a key pillar of its Big Four Agenda, which aims to make the East African nation an upper middle-income country by 2030. Over the next five years, the government plans to build over 500,000 affordable houses across the country to meet the ever-growing housing demand.

To achieve the low-cost housing agenda, however, the industry needs to embrace technological changes that will result in the use of innovative sustainable construction, the aggregate effect of which would be to lower the embodied energy and average cost of manufacturing and housing. “Architecture must address the global housing challenge by integrating critically needed scientific and technical advances in energy, water, and material systems while remaining sensitive to the cultural and aesthetic aspirations of different regions,” said Deborah Berke, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture.

The pavilion serves as a starting point for those in government and industry to think about what they can do better. It is part of a series of demonstration buildings, which started with a 22-square-meter “Ecological Living Module”, powered by renewable energy and designed to minimize the use of resources such as water. This module was displayed at the United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in 2018.

UN Environment

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Urban Development

First ever Cities Summit calls for integrated approach to urban infrastructure

MD Staff

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While Member States were adopting a resolution on sustainable infrastructure at the UN Environment Assembly, the Cities Summit reinforced the importance of local action and the need for an integrated approach to urban infrastructure.

Already 60 per cent of waste and three quarters of resource use and greenhouse gas emissions come from cities, making them great places to tackle sustainable consumption and production. But preserving the well-being of an increasingly urban population, many of whom still lack access to affordable and adequate housing and basic services, is just as important as we seek to achieve the sustainable development goals.

An integrated approach to urban infrastructure can help do both.

In the São Paulo neighbourhood of Jardim Helian, around 14,000 people live in an informal settlement, where the unplanned nature of the area has led to obvious problems.

“One of the issues is when houses invade the river’s territory, leading to forced channelling [which causes floods during the rainy season],” said local resident Mohammed. “Another is that sewage is thrown directly into the creek.”

The Sustainable Cities Programme and UN Environment is helping create an integrated “neighbourhood approach”, which addresses multiple environmental issues by bringing locals together with government and including their concerns in city planning. Lifestyles are already becoming more sustainable there thanks to the intervention.

According to the International Resource Panel Report Weight of Cities, optimizing systems and creating cross-sector synergies between buildings, mobility, energy and urban design can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and resource use by up to 55 per cent.

“Close to 70 per cent of the urban infrastructure that we will see in 2050 is yet to be built,” said Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment, at the summit. It is a huge opportunity to solve different for our cities and future-proof investments.”

UN-Habitat head Maimunah Mohd Sharif, who opened the summit alongside Msuya, concurred, saying that cities are where “the most-severe challenges arising from human-made climate change will have to be confronted”.

Solutions are everywhere

Many solutions exist, such as smart supermarkets and district energy systems, which allow wider systems integration. The retail chain Aktiv & Irma in Germany, for example, has installed an integrated system that links refrigeration, lighting, heat, ventilation and air conditioning. This optimizes power use and cuts 20 per cent off energy costs.

“Remember whenever you hold your hand behind the fridge, it is warm. And today, most supermarkets don’t use this heat,” said Ziad Al Bawaliz, Danfoss Chief Executive Officer, Turkey, Middle East and Africa. “By using waste heat from all the supermarkets in just Europe, we could replace 10 coal power plants.”

With a district energy system—a network of underground pipes that heat or cool multiple buildings—waste heat can even be stored. This includes heat from data centres, industry and metro systems, as seen in countries like Japan, Korea or Chile.

But integration is also needed at different levels, from vertical governance to horizontal, cross-sectoral planning, policy, and finance.

“A sustainable city needs sustainable infrastructure and an integrated, holistic and circular approach to sustainability challenges,” said Tserenbat Namsrai, Mongolia’s Minister of Environment and Tourism, who backed the resolution on creating sustainable infrastructure.   

The Cities Summit showed that visionary local governments, companies and communities are developing solutions that link systems like transport, energy, housing, water and waste. Some cities have set high climate and/or circularity targets.

Osaka, Japan is including energy policy and climate change measures within urban development planning to enable integrated solutions. Dakar, Senegal emphasized the need for good data to undertake holistic planning, while and Buenos Aires and the Ministry of Environment in Argentina demonstrated how multiple levels of government can jointly address the sustainable management of land, transport, and energy.

A new initiative on infrastructure

Integration of partners is just as important, which is why leading companies—including ENGIE, Siemens, JCI and Danfoss—said at the Summit that they would join forces with the UN Environment on a new public-private partnership to promote and implement urban system integration

“The technology is there, finance is there, but we need capacity, said Michael Schack, Director of Networks and Cogeneration ay ENGIE. “Only the UN can address this gap. And we, as the private sector, stand ready to launch a new partnership with UN Environment.”

The new UN Environment Urban Systems Integration programme will help local and national governments accelerate their transitions to circular and low-carbon economies, enhance efficiency, and reduce cities’ resource demands while improving health and well-being. Country participants, including Korea, Poland and Germany, also expressed support for such a partnership.

“Our specialty is to integrate things in Korea and we stand ready to assist any city and country to fast track to integration,” said Benjamin Yoon of the Korean District Heating Corp and a member of Korea’s delegation to the UN Environment Assembly.

The initiative aims to support cities in developing integrated approaches to cross-sectoral infrastructure planning and policies and in implementing key technologies that can facilitate connections and interactions across buildings, energy, transportation, wastewater treatment and waste management.

As United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the 2019 Climate Summit Luis Alfonso de Abla, said in the closing panel, “we need concrete, bold and ambitious climate actions”.

The commitment by UN Environment and partners to accelerate integrated urban infrastructure is undoubtedly one such action.

UN Environment

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