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Urban Development

Cities Around the World Want to Be Resilient and Sustainable. But What Does This Mean?

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Cities around the world, large and small, face common challenges, especially due to rapid urbanization and climate change. According to United Nations (UN) estimates, four billion people – more than half of the world’s population – live in urban areas today. By 2050, over two-thirds of the global population will be urban, challenging cities to meet accelerating demand for affordable housing, well-connected transport systems and other infrastructure and services, as well as jobs.

In addition, rising global temperatures increase the risks of rising water levels, landslides, droughts, hurricanes, and other disasters. Without urgent action, these climate impacts could push an additional 100 million people into poverty by 2030, according to the World Bank. 

The good news is that, armed with knowledge and creativity, urban centers are finding ways to tackle new and old problems alike, with fewer losses and greater recovery capacity – in other words, creating “resilience”.

The Catalyzing Sustainable Urban Futures global conference held recently in São Paulo, Brazil, which was co-hosted by the São Paulo City Hall, the Sustainable Cities Program, and the World Bank’s Global Platform for Sustainable Cities (GPSC), with the support of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), looked closely at this topic of “resilience”.

Representatives from four continents examined three global issues, with sustainability and resilience as an ever-present backdrop. The first was climate change, a concern that mayors can no longer afford to sidestep. According to the World Bank, cities consume about 2/3 of the world’s energy and account for over 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The second issue was the need for more green spaces – think about public parks with trees, birds, bees, and other species. Today, around one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, eroding the foundation of our shared livelihood, society’s ability for adaptation, and nature’s capacity to store carbon. Green spaces do not only help cities mitigate and adapt to climate change, but also serve as important places for human-wildlife coexistence – and a home for conserving urban biodiversity.

Third, there was a constant discussion about solid waste management. Without it, rivers will overflow and the air will be polluted by harmful substances, among other problems. With it, millions of people, including those in the recycling industry, will be presented with new opportunities.

Mitigating and adapting to climate change

Today, 90% of urban expansion takes place in developing countries, and much of it occurs near natural hazards, rivers, and coastal regions, in the form of informal and unplanned settlements. A lack of infrastructure and proper land use plans exacerbates the risks facing residents, especially in view of climate change. Thus, several cities are now devising their own mitigation and adaptation plans. São Paulo, for example, is set to launch its plan in June 2020.

Another Brazilian city, Recife, already has a plan in place, in preparation for the city’s 500th anniversary celebration in 2037. One-third of the local population lives in hill areas susceptible to disasters; another third of the population resides at sea level, which means that flooding is a threat.

“With the participation of civil society and the general population, we have compiled a strategic plan based on a set of urban and environmental plans containing a series of initiatives to mitigate [disaster risks], increase resilience, and adapt to the consequences of the climate crisis,” stated Mayor Geraldo Júlio at the conference.

Plans in developed countries are even more ambitious. Paris, France, has pledged to become a carbon-neutral city by 2050, enacting 500 measures in various industries, such as construction, transport, energy, and food. These measures include goals such as using only green energy (biomass, wind, and solar), banning diesel cars by 2024, and eliminating all cars running on petrol fuels by 2030.

Less asphalt, more forests and parks

“With fewer cars on the street, we will not need as many parking lots or as much asphalt,” said the Deputy Mayor of Paris, Pénélope Komitès. “We can, for example, use garage buildings to plant urban forests that help regulate the temperature.”

Just like Paris, the expansion of green spaces is becoming a trend, from China to Paraguay. These spaces capture carbon and improve air quality, among other benefits. Such changes are most welcome in Chinese cities like Ningbo, which has over 40 square kilometers of protected areas despite its population of 8 million people.

In Latin America, the city of Asunción, Paraguay, is planning to build a green urban corridor – at least 35,000 hectares in size – to take better care of its biodiversity, especially birds. The project is in the preliminary phase.

Parks also help reduce heat, a much-needed improvement in a city like Caruaru in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, where a linear park (i.e., longer than it is wide) will be built with a bike path connecting 14 neighborhoods, with the potential to benefit 140,000 people.

Together, these measures create opportunities for cities to deliver growth that is green, low carbon and competitive – and to build societies that are resilient, inclusive, and livable.

Waste remains rather unsustainable

According to the World Bank report What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050, in 30 years the global rate of waste production will be double the growth rate of the population. “Cities and countries are developing rapidly, but without suitable systems to cope with changes in the waste disposed of by citizens,” the study highlights.

Against this trend, São Paulo is gradually enacting initiatives and setting goals to alleviate the problem. For example, this year the local government joined the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to ensure that 100 percent of plastic packaging can be recycled or reused by 2025.

In addition, there is an initiative in place in São Paulo to increase composting yards. Currently, there are five composting yards that receive waste from public markets with a capacity of up to 10 tons / day. By the end of 2020, the local government has promised a total of 17 composting yards to treat 100 percent of the waste from the more than 800 open markets held each week in the state capital.

Composting yards, waste disposal eco-points (available in São Paulo and Caruaru), or simply improved urban sanitation systems (as in the more precarious neighborhoods of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire) are among the various solutions that can be adopted by cities around the world to boost sustainability and resilience. Granted, these ideas are not always easy to implement and can be rather expensive. However, according to the What a Waste 2.0 report, the cost of inertia tends to be much higher for both the environment and the poor.

World Bank

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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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Urban Development

Building back better in Albania: UNECE supports housing sector reforms and urban ‎resilience ‎

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Albania has made considerable progress in the recent years in the provision of affordable adequate housing to all. Notably, the national government has been providing support to municipal programmes for housing construction; supporting investments into construction of affordable housing, including through public-private partners; and legalizing informal settlements to improve the living conditions of the population.

However, multiple challenges remain due to the lack of available public funds for housing construction and insufficient capacity of some of the municipalities to implement housing programmes. Moreover, natural disasters created new economic and financial challenges: the earthquake in Albania in November 2019 left 14,000 people or 2 per cent of the Albanian population homeless. Another earthquake struck Albania in January 2020, which brought  damage to both public and private properties  amounting to EUR 844 million. The cost of their reconstruction is estimated at EUR 1.07 billion:  about EUR 800 million is needed to rebuild homes while the remaining amount is for repair of damaged infrastructure, such as schools and health centres.

The COVID-19 pandemic further diminished the budget resources available for affordable housing. According to the Albanian Ministry of Finance and Economy, the first phase of the lockdown will cost the economy EUR 16 million in tax revenues. In this context, there is an urgent need to develop new approaches to financing housing construction in Albania.

To discuss opportunities for financing affordable housing, the Albanian Ministry of Economy and Finance and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), in cooperation with Housing Europe, UN-Habitat, UNDP Tirana and the Union for Mediterranean, organized an online workshop on 18 June 2020 The workshop discussed housing finance challenges and opportunities and the future role of the National Housing Agency in Albania taking into account relevant international best practices. A wide group of housing finance and housing policy experts from Belgium, Croatia, Ireland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Ukraine and other countries shared their experiences on the topics.

The outcomes of the workshop will contribute to the revision of Albania’s National Housing Strategy and its Action Plan. They will also help the formulation of the local housing plans for three municipalities, which will be selected on a competitive basis. Other municipalities will be supported through guidelines that will be developed based on results of tests on the pilot municipalities.

The workshop will benefit the UNECE-Housing Europe-UN-Habitat joint “#Housing2030 Initiative: Improving Housing Affordability in the UNECE region” through the best practices on affordable housing shared during the discussions.

The workshop also initiated the work on the second Country Profile on Urban Development, Housing and Land Management of Albania to be developed by UNECE in 2020-2021, in cooperation with the Government. The first Country Profile prepared for Albania in 2002 focused on the housing sector. The second Country Profile will assess the country’s progress in developing housing and urban development policies and will include a comprehensive set of policy recommendations to support the country’s efforts to overcome persisting challenges in areas such as informal settlements, low energy efficiency in buildings and lack of financial resources for housing construction and renovation.

Following the workshop, UNECE will also provide support to Albania in promoting urban resilience through its United Nations Development Account project “Urban economic and financial recovery and resilience building in the time of COVID-19”. The project will be implemented not only in Albania but in several other countries in the UNECE region as well in 2020-2021.

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Urban Development

Vietnam Can Lead ASEAN through the Smart Cities Network Vision

ANBOUND

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When Vietnam takes over the ASEAN chairmanship in 2020, the country outlined five priorities to be executed throughout the year. Among all, strengthening the institutional capacity of ASEAN and leveraging the Industrial Revolution 4.0 to address inequality, are the most challenging goals to be realized within a year. Other scholars such as David Hutt, meanwhile, even pointed out that Vietnam’s most important goal is to secure a united stand on the Code of Conduct to be negotiated with China this year ⸺ a consensus that if achieved, will ensure any agreement regarding the contentious South China Sea dispute to be mutually favourable for all the disputants involved. 

That said, the unexpected outbreak of the COVID-19 has greatly disrupted Hanoi’s initial ambitions to drive the ASEAN agenda into new heights. Not only the global pandemic postponed the regional bloc’s summits and meetings to later dates, it also compelled leaders of all ASEAN countries to devote great focus on this outbreak at the ASEAN level. While the online Special ASEAN Summit last April was able to result in a joint statement to address the COVID-19 pandemic under the chairmanship of Vietnam, it was by no means, adequate for the country to play an active role as the ASEAN’s driver this year. Given the COVID-19’s disruption to ASEAN’s annual meetings and summits, it is not hard to see why Hanoi is seeking to extend another year of its chairmanship despite this may clash with Brunei’s preparations as the next chairman of the Southeast Asian bloc.

Utilizing Confidence Gain in COVID-19 Response

As the country which managed to control COVID-19 and keep it to an excessively low number of transmitted cases, Vietnam has gained an unprecedented confidence among its ASEAN peers as well as those outside of the region. As highlighted by Coleman and Sheehan, Vietnam became a new model of how a developing country can respond to COVID-19 without devoting mass resources for the purpose. Dubbed as low-cost COVID-19 strategy as coined by different scholars, the Vietnamese success stemmed on its abilities on three fronts: mobilizing all segments of society in responding to the crisis, initiating early prevention measures (mask-wearing policy, targeted testing, contact tracing and quarantine) and utilizing different technologies (website and app) for public communication.

With such coordinated measures, Vietnam has cast itself as an exemplary model in controlling the pandemic despite not having colossal resources in conducting mass testing and epidemic surveillance of South Korea, China and Singapore. As a matter of fact, the Vietnamese COVID-19 response model is a highly attractive model which can be readily emulated by other developing countries with limited resources at hand. Within ASEAN, the Vietnamese model can be replicated in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar ⸺ countries that would need effective COVID-19 response strategy without their governments devoting huge costs for it. By occupying the ASEAN chairmanship status, its COVID-19 success resonated confidence from the whole regional bloc on its ability to play a leading role in this testing time. To take it further, such gain of confidence within ASEAN, should be further capitalized by Hanoi to implement regional agendas that would bring pragmatic returns to all member states in the short-run.

Pushing for Short-Term Goals within ASEAN Smart Network Cities (ASNC)

With the COVID-19 pandemic yet to be effectively controlled around the world and has the capacity to recur in the near future, no one knows how much longer would the restarted economies in the bloclast. This situation, in turn, made the ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN) as reached by the Southeast Asian bloc in April 2018, an ever more important priority for immediate implementation. From Anbound’s observations, there are two reasons for such urgency.

First, with COVID-19 vaccine yet to be developed at least not in the immediate future, reduction in face-to-face engagements has become a norm of human interactions. As such, there is no other choice for ASEAN players, whether they are the governments, businesses and average citizens, but to adapt to this new norm in their daily activities. By pushing for the immediate implementation of the ASCN, Vietnam will be able to utilize technology to rejuvenate the economy and improve the lives of ASEAN citizens in the post-pandemic era.

By all means, this will establish Vietnam’s legacy as the chairman that brings ASEAN out of the socio-economic crisis that was brought by the COVIS-19 pandemic. Considering that the 36 cities have planned their strategic projects within the Smart City Action Plans document, what Hanoi could do is to call for an online meeting with the respective national leaders and relevant city mayors, and designate certain short-term goals to be realized by the end of 2020. These goals can be any easier and achievable goals in the three pillars of technological utilization, industrial automation and digitalization of economy.

Second, similar to becoming a model for COVID-19 response, Vietnam could also become another model of smart cities for the lower developing peers in ASEAN. In the course of adapting smart cities vision to its local conditions, Hanoi can share with their peers on how to kick-start smart cities governance in three different cities with three distinctive needs, namely, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Danang. As a latecomer to the smart cities game, these three Vietnamese cities have demonstrated their capabilities to prioritize smart solutions according to their local needs instead of developing all sorts of smart solutions in their localities.

Whereas Hanoi had started the iParking app for drivers and looking to venture into smart solutions in healthcare, education, transport, and tourism, Danang planned to become a green city through the adoption of smart solutions. As such, the latter’ had begun developing its natural disaster management systems that set it apart from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. As for the southern city of Ho Chi Minh, it is planning to become the first smart city of Vietnam and placed emphasis on attaining five capabilities for achieving a comprehensive smart city: development of cloud computing infrastructure, utilization of Big Data, building of data centres, erection of security centres, and establishment of an open data ecosystem. Without question, the cost-effectiveness approach of these three Vietnamese cities, is highly relevant to those lower developing peers in ASEAN in which limited resources are available for them.

An Opportunity Not to Be Missed

Within the ASNC vision, Vietnam is provided with an opportunity (not to be missed) in leading ASEAN toward the next stage of economic development. While it may want to gain specific achievements in the other areas of South China Sea issue and ASEAN’s institutional capacity, realizing these goals requires a lot of diplomacy with the other nine member states. With a little more than half year left, it is still challenging for the country to achieve these goals despite it is not an entirely impossible endeavor to start with. Pushing for short-term goals within the ASNC vision, meanwhile, will help Vietnam to get quick result and one that is also vital for the new course of ASEAN’s economic development.

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