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.
Banking on nature: a Mexican city adapts to climate change
The Mexican city of Xalapa is surrounded by ecosystems that not only harbor stunning flora and fauna, but also provide crucial services to the city and its 580,000 people.
The cloud forest, an indigenous mountain rainforest neighbouring the city, provides 30 per cent of Xalapa’s water supply, while the diverse soil and vegetation around it is a vital store of carbon. But both these natural assets and the city itself are feeling the effects by climate change. Fluctuating temperatures and rainfall patterns are destabilizing the mountain slopes around the city, leading to frequent landslides, while intense rains in the mountains cascade into urban areas below, causing turmoil for the city’s residents.
“Human resilience to climate change depends on ecosystems, and we need urgent measures to protect them,” says Isabel Garcia, author of a study examining the climate vulnerability of Xalapa.
In particular, Garcia’s study identified urban expansion–and its effect on the surrounding environment—as an exacerbating factor in the climate-related risks facing the city.
“We have a city that has approximately 20,000 uninhabited homes, because they were built in inaccessible areas, without potable water and drainage services,” Xalapa’s Deputy Director of Planning, Angélica Moya, says.
“We have irregular settlements in areas that should have never been urbanized, and now we have landslides and floods.”
Focusing on natural solutions
Recognizing both the climate change impacts facing the city and the importance of Xalapa’s surrounding ecosystems for helping its people adapt to these changes, local authorities are now turning to natural solutions. Partnering with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), they are working to restore and protect large areas of cloud forest around the city under the Global Environment Facility-backed CityAdapt project.
A five-year initiative, CityAdapt is working across Latin America and the Caribbean to support cities in their efforts to adapt to climate change, an issue that is increasingly a priority for municipalities around the region, according to UNEP’s Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Leo Heileman.
“In Latin America and the Caribbean, where 80 per cent of the population lives in cities, we urgently need to shift from vicious cycles of degradation to the virtuous dynamic of resilient ecosystems,” Heileman says.
The CityAdapt project marks Xalapa as the first Latin American city to seize the potential of ecosystem-based adaptation–an approach that uses nature to adapt to climate change. By leveraging the natural environment–like the role of trees in regulating water flow and preventing landslides and erosion—ecosystem-based adaptation can help reduce both flood and drought, and is often much more cost-effective than engineered structures built to serve the same role.
“The main goal of this project is to enhance the capacity of local governments to face the adverse effects of climate change,” Sergio Angón, CityAdapt National Coordinator in Mexico, says.
Within the framework of the project, two reports have already been produced for Xalapa on climate change vulnerability and potential climate scenarios for 2039.
The vulnerability analysis identified areas most at risk from climate change. It also measured the adaptive capacity of the ecosystems that currently provide Xalapa with surface water supply, soil retention and carbon storage.
According to the analysis, Xalapa’s cloud forest—an ecosystem already reduced to just 1 per cent of its former range around Mexico—could see temperatures rise by as much as 1.8°C by 2039, impacting biodiversity, as well as potentially increasing the spread and intensity of diseases in the nearby coffee plantations.
Balancing people and nature
But by restoring the forest and working to limit the growing city’s negative impacts on the surrounding environment, CityAdapt is helping Xalapa strike a vital balance between people and nature.
“We need to move Xalapa in an orderly way towards a new model of territorial development, in which resilience is the key focus,” Xalapa mayor, Hipólito Rodríguez, says.
Alongside research and forest restoration, CityAdapt is backing other adaptation initiatives, such as enhanced watershed planning, and strengthening local livelihoods.
Rainwater harvesting systems are being introduced in public buildings and schools, ensuring adequate water supplies in the face of increasingly unpredictable rains, while the project is also teaching climate-resilient agricultural practices to local communities.
“This is an opportunity to rethink the way we build a city,” says Angelica Moya.
As urbanization grows, cities unveil sustainable development solutions on World Day
Over half of the world’s population now live in cities, with numbers expected to double by 2050, but while urbanization poses serious challenges, cities can also be powerhouses for sustainable development; something the UN is spotlighting on World Cities Day, marked 31 October.
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) will host a celebration at its Paris Headquarters on Thursday, convening representatives from all corners of the world for discussions on how cities can combat the climate crisis, create more inclusive urban spaces, and contribute to technical innovation.
Cities provide a wealth of opportunities, jobs included, and generate over 80 per cent of gross national product across the globe, according to UN estimates. Urban areas also account for between 60 and 80 per cent of all energy consumption, despite only occupying three per cent of the planet’s surface and are responsible for three quarters of all greenhouse gas emissions.
In addressing these pros and cons, the Organisation has advocated for a “people-centred” development model, and aims to “re-humanise cities” in the face of trends impacting them, from population growth, demographic shifts, and increasing the risk of disasters induced by climate change.
This year’s theme: “Changing the world: innovations and better life for future generations” spotlights the role of technology and young people in building sustainable cities. To do so, Thursday’s commemorative event will be organized along four key discussion themes: ‘Cities 4 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’, ‘Cities 4 Climate Action’, ‘Cities 4 Communities’, and ‘Cities 4 the Future’.
In line with its multidisciplinary mandate, UNESCO’s 2004 Creative Cities Network continues to harness the various ways cities spanning the globe are placing creativity and cultural industries at the heart of their development plans.
From gastronomy in Tucson, Arizona, to design in Nagoya, Japan, the network engages more than 246 cities, which integrate creative approaches in their development plans, 66 of which UNESCO announced as newcomers on the World Day. See the complete list of cities, and their creative undertakings here.
For World Cities Day this year, UNESCO is partnering with the UN”s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), UN-Habitat, and refugee agency (UNHCR) to amplify the concerted action of the United Nations for cities alongside their planners and other urban players.
The UN-proclaimed World Day serves as a call for States, municipalities and city dwellers to work together for transformative change and sustainable strategies for cities, as urbanization continues to swell.
UN chief calls cities a battleground for climate crisis
Secretary-General António Guterres explained in a statement attributable to his spokesperson, that “the choices that will be made on urban infrastructure in the coming decades…will have decisive influence on the emissions curve. Indeed, cities are where the climate battle will largely be won or lost.”
From electric public transport to renewable and energy and better waste management systems, cities are “hubs of innovation and creativity, and young people are taking the lead.”
In addition, he highlighted that World Cities Day comes as “urban October” concludes, a month dedicated to raising awareness of urban challenges, and successes in sustainability.
“Let us commit to embracing innovation to ensure a better life for future generations and chart a path towards sustainable, inclusive urban development that benefits all”, he encouraged.
Spotlight on cities
Over half the world’s people live in cities. As more and more people move into cities from rural areas a number of environmental and social challenges arise, including overcrowding in slum areas, poor sanitation and air pollution. However, urbanization can also present great opportunities and is a critical tool for achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development if done right.
Cities have always been drivers and incubators of innovation. It is often said that the battle for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will be won or lost in cities. For this to happen, cities will have to continue to drive innovation to achieve a lasting impact in communities and to ensure that “no one and no place” is left behind.
This year’s World Cities Day, hosted by the City of Ekaterinburg, Russian Federation and co-organized by UN-Habitat, the Shanghai People’s Government and the City of Ekaterinburg, will focus on technology and innovation: digital innovations that can be used for urban services to enhance people’s quality of life and improve the urban environment; technologies for building more inclusive cities; opportunities for generating renewable energy and; technologies that can promote social inclusion in cities.
This year’s theme for World Cities Day on 31 October is “Changing the world: innovations and better life for future generations.”
Technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual, augmented and mixed reality and the internet of things present efficiency and communications opportunities requiring new governance frameworks. This rapid rate of innovation also puts pressure on urban policymakers and managers to strengthen their capacity when it comes to understanding, procuring and regulating new technologies.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) works in partnership with UN-Habitat and others to promote the sustainable development of cities.
Jointly with the World Health Organization, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the World Bank, we lead BreatheLife, a global campaign to mobilize cities and individuals to protect our health and our planet from the effects of air pollution.
Together with Cities Alliance, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and the World Bank, we launched the Knowledge Centre on Cities and Climate Change (K4C), an online repository of information on climate change that advocates informed decision-making in local governance.
Check out UNEP’s work with partners relating to cities, covering green spaces (and the importance of trees in soaking up pollution), sustainable transport, district heating and cooling, sustainable waste management, sanitation and more.
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