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Urban Development

A new green chapter for China’s fabled lakeside city

MD Staff

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Hangzhou has seen its share of history. A millennium ago, the city was the seat of two separate dynasties for over 200 years, putting it in storied company with China’s six other ancient capitals. In 1972, during his “week that changed the world”, Richard Nixon strolled the shores of the city’s West Lake with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Their discussions by the water spurred China’s historic economic opening.

Forty-four years later, another meeting between Chinese and American leaders in Hangzhou marked a profound global change. It was here that President Xi Jinping and President Obama announced that both of their countries had ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change.

These days, Hangzhou is not content to be a mere witness to history. Instead, the city is writing its own story using broad green strokes.

Hangzhou is rapidly modernizing its public transit network. In 2008, it was Hangzhou that launched China’s first bike sharing system, which is now the world’s largest.

Its bus network is becoming greener as well. Seventy per cent of public buses in the city are now electric. It’s no small investment. Each bus costs US$145,000, which is about double the price of a conventional public bus.

But the outlay is well worth it, according to Vice Mayor Hu Wei. “The most important thing is that we can protect the environment and fight air pollution,” he says.

Even though the initial cost is high, over the lifetime of the bus the cost is the same or less compared to a conventional equivalent. And they are getting cheaper. Since the buses were introduced in 2014, operating costs have dropped by between 30–40 per cent.

“The challenge is to convince other businesses like tour companies to use these greener buses,” says the mayor.

The subway network is expanding as well. It already covers some 170 kilometres, but the city is building new lines that will bring it closer to 500. While the metro is currently more expensive than the bus, the expansion will allow the government to bring costs down for commuters.

In the face of persistent air pollution, investments are not the only tool at the government’s disposal. The government is also taking hard decisions. In 2015, a 59-year-old steel plant was shut down to improve air quality. The government estimates the closure will prevent 3,000 tonnes of soot from entering the skies in the city.

Speaking at World Environment Day celebrations in Hangzhou, Che Jun, the Party Secretary of Hangzhou’s home province of Zhejiang, painted a bleak picture of the area where the plant was located. “Air was permeated with a pungent smell. All of the rivers in the areas were strangers to fish and shrimp. All of Hangzhou was a victim,” he said.

Concerns over the economic impact of the shutdown were short-lived. The company “leveraged the tailwind of the digital economy… and was reborn” said Che. “In 2018, their profit hit CNY3.53 billion [US$511 million].”

The former home of the steel plant is now part of the 65 per cent tree cover that Hangzhou enjoys. This has heralded a natural revival. “This spring we saw tens of thousands of egrets coming to the city,” said Che. “Now, egrets flying against the setting sun has become an iconic image of the city this year.”

Hangzhou’s green rejuvenation may be nowhere more in evidence than Xixi National Wetland Park, a 2,800-acre integrated urban, agricultural and cultural wetland in the west of the city. Though the wetland has been a natural part of the landscape for almost 2,000 years, the government pushed for its revival in 2005. The park has come back to life, with the number of bird species seen in the park has increased from 79 before the rejuvenation to 181 today. And it’s a functional revival as well. As water circulates between Xixi, the Qiantang River and the UNESCO-listed Grand Canal, the wetland acts as a natural kidney, filtering pollutants from the water.

More than 700 years ago, the Venetian explorer Marco Polo said that while heaven may contain paradise, Earth had Suzhou and Hangzhou.

Today, city officials in Hangzhou are doing everything they can to maintain their claim to this earthbound eden.

UN Environment

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Urban Development

New toolkit to help countries switch to climate-smart urbanization

MD Staff

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The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change  secretariat, and the Commonwealth Secretariat, in collaboration with several United Nations entities, have developed a law and climate change toolkit to promote climate-smart urbanization.

Global heating has been described as the “defining issue of our time”. An effective response to climate change requires deliberate and sustained action from both state and non-state actors that is anchored in nationally determined contributions. Implementing these contributions requires supportive regulatory and institutional frameworks and a regular assessment of their adequacy and effectiveness.

UN-Habitat—in partnership with UNEP, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat, and the Commonwealth Secretariat—held a panel discussion at the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi on 12 February 2020 to showcase how the law and climate change toolkit works.

“The toolkit is an innovative online database designed to help countries establish legal frameworks necessary for effective domestic implementation of the Paris Agreement and their nationally determined contributions,” says María Socorro Manguiat, Senior Legal Officer in UNEP’s Law Division.

“Urban law defines urban forms, where land, infrastructure, housing and basic services can be built; lays out rules for planning and decision-making; and sets the context within which urban authorities, local governments and communities are expected to fulfil their mandate and react to emerging challenges.”

UN-Habitat has led the development of the urban law module of the toolkit, which was developed in recognition of the close nexus between urbanization and climate change. 

“The urban law module aims to demonstrate, in very concrete terms, how important urban planning laws and regulations are in achieving climate mitigation and adaptation objectives, and what laws and regulations you should have to make them ‘climate-smart’,” says Gianluca Crispi, Programme Management Officer, Policy, Legislation and Governance Section, UN-Habitat.

During the Forum, UNEP presented strategies and approaches to improve urban planning and management. These included a microsimulation modelling tool to support data gathering, and air quality monitoring to make informed decisions.

UNEP provides technical assistance to countries in the review and development of their national legislation, drawing on examples and best practice from around the world and in collaboration with other entities such as UN-Habitat.

UN Environment

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Urban Development

Global forum on cities highlights need for sustainable development

MD Staff

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If cities like Delhi, Lagos, Sao Paolo and Tokyo seem populated today, think what they’ll be like by 2050. The United Nations predicts that by then, 2.5 billion more people will be living in urban centres, making two out of every three people city dwellers.

Cities are hubs for cultural, scientific and economic development, but they can also be stark reminders of the environmental and socio-economic challenges we face. Today, cities are responsible for some 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and consume 75 per cent of the world’s energy and resources. As the human population continues to grow and the planet faces unprecedented threats from climate change, there is a critical need for sustainable urban planning.

The tenth World Urban Forum (WUF)—the foremost international gathering on sustainable urbanization established by the United Nations—focused on the intersection of culture and innovation to address emerging urban challenges.

“Environment is a golden thread connecting culture and innovation, the theme of this year’s World Urban Forum,” said Martina Otto, head of the Cities Unit at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “Just as addressing climate change must become part of the conservation strategies for our heritage buildings, so must we find inspiration in traditions, be it traditional building techniques or urban form to build the cities of the future. Through innovation, we can create the pathways to make our cities zero carbon, resource efficient and resilient.”

A number of UNEP personnel attended the WUF to showcase ongoing work and projects. One example was the launch of what’s being called the world’s largest real-time air quality databank.

Another project featured was the Law and Climate Change toolkit.

UNEP and UN-Habitat have a longstanding cooperation in the area of sustainable urbanization, implemented through different projects—the latest being the Greener Cities Partnership. The joint mission reflects UN-Habitat’s take on compact, integrated and connected cities and UNEP’s work on cities as a force to achieve a decarbonizing and eco-decoupling economy.

Separately, UNEP supports cities across the world in addressing climate impacts and integrating the environment into their long-term urban planning through three priority areas: economy, nature-based adaptation, and climate and pollution action.

Given the resource surge linked to urban development, cities have a primary role in moving from a take-make-dispose economy to a circular model, where materials and products are kept in use for as long as possible at their highest value. Using their jurisdiction, cities can embed circularity principles into their planning decisions and policies.

Similarly, urban development and particularly sprawl are a driver for habitat loss, impacting the very ecosystems, city residents depend on. Nature-based solutions such as mangroves can be a cost-effective solution to dealing with floods and coastal erosion while also improving air quality.

It’s no secret that cities produce a lot of air and water pollution, both impacting their livability and the health of their citizens. By placing permits for industrial activities and construction, introducing low emission zones, switching to district energy and bettering water and wastewater management practices, cities can reduce their pollution output while also improving quality of life.

UN Environment

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Urban Development

Designing Gender-Inclusive Cities that Work for All

MD Staff

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Modern cities are designed BY MEN and FOR MEN, thereby limiting women’s access to economic and social development, according a new World Bank publication launched today at the World Urban Forum (WUF10)

The Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design makes the point that with women occupying just 10 percent of the highest-ranking jobs at the world’s leading architecture firms, cities have historically been planned and designed to reflect traditional gender roles and gendered division of labor. As a result, cities work better for men than they do for women.

“Men, women, gender minorities, and people of different abilities tend to use the public space in different ways,” stressed Sameh Wahba, World Bank Global Director for Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience, and Land.  “We all have different needs and routines when it comes to our access to the city. However, if the city is built for the ‘neutral’ male user, it neglects the needs, interests, and routines of women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities in the city. This has enormous impacts on women’s access to jobs or schools, on their freedoms and safety, as well as their health and agency, and it reinforces gender inequalities.”

There are six issue areas in the built environment that combine with gender inequity to constrain, inconvenience, and even endanger women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities of all ages and abilities:

Access – using services and spaces in the public realm, free from constraints and barriers

Mobility – moving around the city safely, easily, and affordably

Safety and freedom from violence – being free from real and perceived danger in public and private spheres

Health and hygiene – leading an active lifestyle that is free from health risks in the built environment

Climate resilience – being able to prepare for, respond to, and cope with the immediate and long-term effects of disaster

Security of tenure – accessing and owning land and housing to live, work, and build wealth and agency

“Urban planning and design shape the environment around us – and that environment, in turn, shapes how we live, work, play, move, and rest,” said Maitreyi Das, Manager of the World Bank’s Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience, and Land Global Practice.  “In general, cities work better for heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender men than they do for women, girls, sexual and gender minorities, and people with disabilities.  Faced with challenges ranging from transportation services that prioritize commuting over caregiving, to the lack of lighting and toilets in public spaces, many women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities around the world feel inconvenienced, ill-at-ease, and unsafe in the urban environment.”

Although the World Bank and other institutions are firmly committed to advancing gender equality, oftentimes urban planners, project managers, and practitioners lack awareness of the importance of prioritizing gender in the urban design process, and do not have the specific, on-the-ground knowledge or tools to effectively implement gender-inclusive strategies.

To address this, the Handbook encourages gender-inclusive planning and design, which actively includes the voice of women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities.  The publication seeks to fill the clear gap between policy and practice, intention and action, by showing why and how to incorporate gender inclusion into urban planning and design.

The Handbook sets out practical approaches, activities, and design guidelines that show how to do this – how to implement a participatory and inclusive design process that explores the experiences and uses of the city from the perspective of all citizen: women, men, and sexual and gender and other minorities.

It also gives clear, specific design guidelines, appropriate for and adaptable to all regions, for a range of planning fields, including housing, public transport and mobility infrastructure, other infrastructure services, and city master plans. 

The Handbook is written for practitioners and planners who are looking for practicable tools and activities to engage people of all genders in design and planning. It focuses on both the process of planning and the final product: the project. The aim is to design cities that work for everyone.

The Handbook was co-authored by Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), a nonprofit community development and design firm that centers inclusive, participatory approaches.

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