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.
New toolkit to help countries switch to climate-smart urbanization
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.
Global forum on cities highlights need for sustainable development
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.
Designing Gender-Inclusive Cities that Work for All
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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