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Urban Development

Cities can fight climate change and improve lives by finding new ways to be cool

MD Staff

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Life has always been hotter in cities. Concrete soaking up and radiating sunlight, and the concentration of people, cars and machinery crank up the temperatures, making them on average 5–9°C warmer than rural areas.

This has led to fast growth of power-hungry air conditioning units delivering cooling. The problem is that this cooling has been pumping out excess heat and greenhouse gas emissions, which warm the planet and so lead to an ever-greater need for cooling.

Cities will still have to keep their citizens cool. We have already witnessed growing heat waves, both in frequency and amplitude. They severely affect the functioning and health of cities and their citizens. Rising temperatures contribute to heat-related deaths, reduced workforce productivity—estimated at 2.2 per cent of working hours lost worldwide by 2030—and poor air quality, which disproportionately affects the poorest communities. Rising temperatures mean that 1.6 billion people could face average summer temperature highs of 35°C by 2050, approximately 1.4 billion more people than today.

We need better ways to keep cool.

“About 40 per cent of energy consumed by buildings worldwide is used for space heating and cooling,” said Martina Otto, who heads the secretariat of the Global Alliance on Buildings and Construction at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). “Space cooling is amongst the fastest-growing building end uses, and with higher temperature, more urbanites and rising standards of living, we will need a multiplicity of solutions to provide thermal comfort and protect human health.”

Active cooling needs to be cleaner and more efficient while we design buildings for more passive cooling and include nature-based solutions in buildings and cities’ public space. And we need to shift from the notion of cooling down space to providing thermal comfort.

Cities already starting to deliver

There are global and local efforts to address the energy efficiency and climate impact of the cooling sector, in particular through the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. These actions can make a huge difference, but cities can do a lot more.

The Cool Coalition—a global network connecting over 80 partners—is working towards a rapid global transition to efficient and climate-friendly cooling. It will work with C40 cities and its network of more than 90 members to share expertise and integrate urban cooling into their climate action plans, as well as with the GlobalABC, who issued a call: “Buildings—keeping cool, naturally”.

By implementing clean cooling strategies, cities can not only reduce the demand for cooling but align their policies with other areas of importance, such as air quality, public health and energy resilience.

Cities are working on innovative solutions, and C40 cities are delving deeper into them as they meet in Copenhagen this week for the C40 World Mayors Summit. These range from scaling up district cooling initiatives to cool roofs and green roofs and facades, to urban landscaping with nature-based solutions such as green corridors, a well-articulated offer of green public spaces.

“Cities have a critical role to play in delivering efficient, clean cooling for their citizens” said David Aitken, Director, Innovation at Cool Coalition partner the Carbon Trust. “In their role as a facilitator, planning authority, asset owner and financier, cities have many levers to pull that can influence the way cooling is produced and consumed. Taking action on cooling at the local level will also leverage co-benefits relating to health and wellbeing, air quality and living standards.”  

There are examples from all over the world.

Following the 2010 heatwave, Ahmedabad in India developed a plan for cool roofs, awareness raising and cooling stations. Since 2013, the city has avoided an estimated 1,100 deaths per year. It has acted as a blueprint for 30 cities in India, who have now released or are developing their own plan.

As part of their commitment to the Paris Climate agreement, Melbourne, Australia is banking on nature-based solutions. The goal is to plant 3,000 trees—which provide shade, reflect sunlight and release moisture into the air through their leaves—every year and cool the city by 4°C.

Copenhagen, Denmark, uses seawater in its district cooling system, reducing CO₂ emissions by up to 30,000 tonnes per year. The goal is to expand district cooling further and contribute to Copenhagen’s target of becoming CO2-neutral by 2025. Other initiatives in Copenhagen include green roofs for municipal buildings and a smart city energy lab that demonstrates how electricity and heating, energy-efficient buildings and electric transport can be integrated into an optimized system.

Cool roofs and new building materials on the rise

Cool roofs are gaining traction globally. Through its CoolRoofs Initiative, New York City has already painted more than 5 million square feet of its roofs with a reflective coating. Meanwhile, the Global Cool Cities Alliance has launched the Million Cool Roofs Challenge, a US$2 million global competition to rapidly scale up the deployment of highly solar-reflective roofs in developing countries.

“The concept of cool roofs is simple, but implementation faces barriers in the global south,” said Kurt Shickman, Executive Director of the Global Cool Cities Alliance. “We need to raise awareness of the opportunity. The availability of coatings and other cool roof solutions is often limited or non-existent. There is a lack of financing and investment. The Million Cool Roofs Challenge seeks to address each of these challenges.”

Green roofs and facades provide thermal insulation and help clean the air by trapping particulate matter. They offer the opportunity for urban agriculture and onsite wastewater treatment, adding further benefits. Bio-based building materials, which have a lower climate impact than concrete and store less heat, also offer real potential to improve the building envelope. While concrete has a high thermal mass, it’s extremely energy intensive to produce: 8 to 10 per cent of the world’s CO₂ emissions come from cement. “Alternatives such as bio-based materials are increasingly being used and can help reduce environmental impacts, while also providing the desired thermal mass,” said Otto. “For example, we have engaged in a partnership with Yale University to explore the use of such alternatives, from certified timber to bamboo and use of agricultural waste products such as coco fibre.”

It is clear that cities have a wide menu of options to choose from. They can walk the talk through public procurement decisions regarding their own buildings, set performance standards, use their planning authority and enter into partnerships with the private sector. By taking advantage of these options, cities can turn down the heat in the city and help put the world on track for a cooler future.

UN Environment

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Urban Development

Cities: Where the fight for a green recovery will be won or lost

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Cities are home to 55 per cent of the world’s population, all jammed together cheek-by-jowl. Little wonder, then, that cities are being hit hardest by COVID-19: an estimated 90 per cent of all reported cases have occurred in urban areas.

But the same concentration of people also makes cities the places where the battle for a green recovery from COVID-19 – which is essential to reduce future pandemic risks and fight climate change – can be won.

Cities are breeding grounds for ideas and the places where many new techniques to reduce climate change, pollution, resource use and biodiversity loss are taking shape. Before COVID-19, many cities had already adopted urban farming, e-mobility, non-motorized transport, and were exploring zero emission buildings, district energy and decentralized renewable energy systems, nature-based solutions, and retrofitting projects.

The trillions of dollars likely to be invested in COVID-19 recovery packages can accelerate such developments.

“As we respond to the pandemic and work towards recovery, we look to our cities as hubs of community, human innovation and ingenuity,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the recent launch of a policy brief on COVID-19 in an urban space. “Now is the time to … recover better, by building more resilient, inclusive and sustainable cities.”

Future proofing economies

COVID-19 recovery provides an opportunity to future-proof economies: for cities to clear their air, green their open spaces, and embrace solutions that help decarbonize and drive down resource use and related impacts on ecosystems, while creating new jobs.

Urban planning and design that helps create strategically dense cities and connects housing with transport and energy planning, as well as grey with blue and green infrastructure to harness benefits from nature-based solutions, will be critical.

UNEP is also working with ICLEI, through its Cities Biodiversity Center, to support multi-level governance for people and nature to live in harmony in and around our cities.

“We must pursue a green, resilient and inclusive economic recovery,” said Guterres. “By focusing on high ecological transformation and job creation, stimulus packages can steer growth towards a low-carbon, resilient pathway and advance the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Climate change: the next threat

The need for such action is urgent. COVID-19 may be currently taking centre stage, but climate change is still waiting in the wings.

Coastal cities are already enduring devastating floods, coastal erosion, sea-level rise and extreme weather events linked to climate change. Cities also suffer higher temperature than non-urban areas. Today, around 200 million city-dwellers in over 350 cities live with summer temperature highs of over 35°C (95°F). The number of cities chronically affected by heat-stress is predicted to rise to 970 by 2050. All these factors pose serious threats to people’s health and livelihoods, and our economies overall.

While cities are vulnerable to climate change, some 75 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions are from cities. This means that the key to a decarbonized transition is held by the mayor and city councilors. Over 70 large cities, representing 425 million people, have committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. This is a start: 227 cities annually produce more than 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. We need a five-fold decrease in emissions to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C.

Success is possible. Cities have a long tradition of reinventing themselves, not least in response to previous pandemics that brought the introduction of sewage systems, public parks and housing regulation to improve sanitation and reduce overcrowding.

Connecting nature, climate and land use

Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park is a perfect example of nature-based strategies at the crossroad of health, urban resilience and climate goals. The park’s innovative design reduces flooding risk by absorbing and storing water, which is then used for irrigation in the dry season.

Medellin in Colombia, meanwhile, has embraced nature as a cooling solution through its ‘Green Corridors’ project, transforming 18 roads and 12 waterways into lush, green havens of cool shade. The project has reduced the surface temperature in Medellin by 2-3 ̊C while improving air quality and biodiversity.

Multi-level governance crucial

Cities and nations are increasingly working together on socio-economic recovery through multi-level governance on decision-making. Ministers and mayors recently came together to accelerate climate action in an event organized by UNEP, the United Nations Development Programme, UN-Habitat, the Global Covenant of Mayors, ICLEI and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG).

Over 300 participants – including ministers from Italy, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, South Africa, Chile, and over 25 mayors and governors – discussed coordination on climate change, particularly in key sectors such as buildings, transport, agriculture and waste management.

Green strings for stimulus packages

As all levels of government plan for socio-economic recovery, stimulus packages could support cities’ transition to decarbonization. Urban investment can promote compact, integrated, mixed-use cities that reduce the distance between place of work and place of residence. The regeneration of green spaces, rethinking urban mobility and promoting public and non-motorized transport, investing in retrofitting buildings to reduce inequalities will help improve well-being and create more jobs.

“Cities are on the frontline of impact, but also of the solutions,” said Andersen. “Greening cities has health benefits, helps climate mitigation and adaptation and creates jobs.”

UN Environment

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Urban Development

Coronavirus: Reshape the urban world to aid ‘ground zero’ pandemic cities

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A health worker distributes hygiene supplies to a family in Dhaka, Bangladesh. UN Women/Fahad Kaizer

Cities have proved to be “ground zero” the world over for the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN chief said on Tuesday, encouraging leaders everywhere to “rethink and reshape the urban world” as we recover. 

“Now is the moment to adapt to the reality of this and future pandemics”, Secretary-General António Guterres said in his recorded message launching the latest UN policy brief, “COVID-19 in an urban world”.

“And now is our chance to recover better, by building more resilient, inclusive and sustainable cities”, he added.

Even the scales

Mr. Guterres highlighted deeply rooted inequalities in the poorest areas, citing strained health systems, inadequate water and other challenges that cities are facing in common, with 90 per cent of reported coronavirus cases concentrated in urban areas.

However, the report reveals that urban density does not inevitably correlate with higher virus transmission, saying that vulnerabilities are largely a result of the choices made on how people live, work and travel, in and around them.

Hubs of resilience

But cities are also home to extraordinary solidarity and resilience. 

Pointing to the numerous examples of strangers helping each other, streets filling with citizens showing their support for essential workers, and local businesses donating life-saving supplies, Mr. Guterres maintained that “we have seen the best of the human spirit on display”.

“As we respond to the pandemic and work towards recovery, we look to our cities as hubs of community, human innovation and ingenuity”, the top UN official said. 

Halt inequalities

The UN released the guidance to reflect upon and reset how we live, interact and rebuild our cities.

In responding to the pandemic, the first line of business is to tackle inequalities and safeguard social cohesion, said Mr. Guterres.

“We must prioritize those who are the most vulnerable in our cities, including guaranteeing safe shelter for all and emergency housing to those without homes.”

Noting that nearly one-quarter of the world’s urban population lives in slums, he flagged that public services in many cities require “urgent attention”, particularly in informal settlements.

Since access to water and sanitation are vital, Mr. Guterres mentioned how some local governments have stepped up, “from prohibiting evictions during the crisis, to putting in place new clean water stations in the most vulnerable areas”.

Bolster local government

To support and strengthen local governments, the world’s top diplomat underscored the importance of deeper cooperation between local and national authorities. 
 

“Stimulus packages and other relief should support tailored responses and boost local government capacity”, he said.

Steering the future

Another key policy recommendation is for cities to pursue a green, resilient and inclusive economic recovery. 

Against the backdrop of new bike lanes and pedestrian zones to improve mobility, safety and air quality in cities, Mr. Guterres said that “we must act with the same urgency”.

He observed that by embracing widescale telecommuting away from offices, it showed that “societies can transform seemingly overnight to confront urgent threats”.

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Urban Development

Mapping the juxtaposition of sustainable-affordable housing in the post Covid world

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The pandemic has definitely taken a vice grip of the entire world’s institutional paraphernalia which has severely affected not only the public health mechanisms but also economies across the globe. However, the present piece shall be hovering over an offshoot of this pandemic which has been incessantly ignored by the world at large. The problem in question shall pertain to the issues of affordability as well as sustainability when it comes to housing. Sustainability has been echoed in various international instruments starting from Stockholm Declaration of 1972 to Montreal Protocol in 1987 to Earth Summit in the year 1992[1]. But the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals have put the sustainability debate at the forefront in the international legal regime. But, the inter-relationship of sustainability with the housing mechanism has not been explicitly recognised under the international legal regime. There have been passing references pertaining to clean water and sanitation[2], putting efforts for affordable and clean energy and making of sustainable cities and communities that have been provided in the Sustainable Development goals laid down in the year, 2015. The goals are absolutely silent on the issue of affordable-sustainable housing. However, United Nations Organization has been pragmatic in adopting the Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing[3] in the year 2015 which is the first as well as the fundamental international convention on the issue in question. This international convention explicitly talks about the goal of achieving the sustainable housing system and also lays down the challenges emanating out of the same.

Sustainability- A term difficult to decipher

However, the term “sustainable” housing is difficult to comprehend completely. There cannot be a straight jacket solution in deducing its definition and there are innumerable connotations attached to it. One of the environmental economists Herman Daly has laid down three essentialities for a sustainable housing framework. These include the rate of use of renewable resources, rate of use of non-renewable resources in the premises and lastly, the controlling of pollution emissions. Also, Dow Jones had developed a sustainability index which delves into the parameters of an ideal sustainable framework[4]. But the parameters mentioned hereunder do not reflect an exhaustive list of things to be included in the sustainable and affordable housing framework.

Dichotomy of affordable-sustainable cities: International outlook

In the international domain, the researcher has critically analyzed three genres of models and decoded the sanctity of the same. The first model which was comprehensively evaluated was the USA model which was marked by Clear Act, 1963 but did not live up to the expectations pertaining to the issue in question. But later, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has laid down the criterion for affordable housing by attributing 30% of the gross household income but the sustainability factor was completely ignored. The UK Model brought the Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing in the year 2015 deliberated upon the nuances of sustainability pertaining to housing mechanisms but did not take into consideration the affordability element. Lastly, the Australian Model discussed under the realms of Demographic International Housing Affordability Report of 2015 pointed out the soaring prices of housing facilities so deduced rules of affordable system of housing in the city of Melbourne. But, again one of the things the researcher inferred that there has been a necessary disjunct between affordability and sustainability in various legal institutional paraphernalia.  

The Indian approach: A questionable concern

In India, too, the legal mechanism adopted by the government under the realms of Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana is called as “housing for all”. Under the mandate of the said scheme, the government intended to make houses for everyone at affordable prices. But, this scheme is absolutely silent on the issue of environmental sustainability. The ambiguity emanating out of this scheme needs to be addressed by the government as soon as possible. Even though there have been some governments like that of Trivendrum have been Good Samaritan in this direction by providing sustainable housing facilities at affordable prices as well. Even various private entrepreneurs have now become cautious in respect of their carbon-emissions and have started taking adequate action to substantially reduce them. This is in absolute sync with the Paris Climate Agreement of 2018. Sustainability is not only restricted to controlling and prevention of disparaging of the ecological structure of the world but also, helps in boosting the profits of the company in the long run. Sustainability has become one of the most debatable issues in the modern scenario. Any ideal housing mechanism has to be sustainable and affordable at the same time. Thus, the entire thrust of this research was on developing a sustainable as well as an affordable housing framework for the people in India as well.

But in the post Covid world, the international community needs to re-examine the structures of housing facilities wherein affordability should come in synchronization with the sustainability element as well. Recently, World Health Organization (WHO) deliberated upon the issue of housing so as to de-clutter those ill-made houses so that the spread of highly contagious virus can be contained. Though it has been rightly said by Robert Merton that “It is good to ask questions but it is always better to find solutions to those questions”, but such complex set of questions cannot be answered in one go. They need proper analysis of the problem and then only certain concrete measures could be thought of. The idea behind writing this piece was to ignite the spirit of empathy among the readers about the pitiable condition of the housing.  It would be highly falsified on our part if we bombard the readers with a special set of suggestions because the cost-benefit analysis of each of those suggestions would be varied and comprehensive. Thus, I have left the door ajar so that the readers are able to familiarize with the given set of problems which are staring us in this context and then accordingly ponder about the need of sensitization of the sustainable-affordable housing issue at the domestic as well as the global level. The governments have always exhibited callous behaviour towards environment, human rights and public health issues. Thus, a stern eye needs to be kept on these reckless corporate and governmental entities which have only been disparaging the housing issue since time immemorial.  


[1] JM Lavy CONTEMPORARY URBAN PLANNING, Pearson Education Publications 34-39 (4th edition 2009)

[2] Principle 6, Sustainable Development Goals by United Nations; https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html

[3]The Geneva United Nations Charter on Sustainable Housing; https://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/hlm/documents/Publications/UNECE_Charter_EN.pdf

[4]Sustainability Assessment, ROBECOSAM,available athttp://www.sustainability-indices.com/ sustainability-assessment/index.jsp (last visited on 26th June, 2020).

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