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Urban Development

Towards smart sustainable cities: UNECE examines good practices to promote innovation ‎

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The world is urbanizing fast. Already today, half the population is living in cities. By 2050, that proportion is projected to rise to over two thirds. Cities are economic powerhouses, accounting for 80 percent of world GDP. They also have large ecological footprints, accounting for 60-80 percent of energy consumption and 75 percent of carbon emissions globally. If the world is to achieve the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, of prosperity, within planetary boundaries, for all, cities will have to lead the way.

Many cities in the UNECE region have taken up this challenge. And innovation is key to meeting it. Leading cities are using innovative technologies and innovative ways of management and governance to deliver better environmental and economic performance and a better quality of life in an inclusive way.

Leading cities are hotbeds of this kind of innovation. They are dense eco-systems strong universities, innovative start-ups, small, medium and big companies, well-financed investors, deep and diverse talent pools, state of the art communication, transport and energy infrastructures, large local markets, good governance structures, and strong economic ties to the rest of the world. Innovation flourishes in these eco-systems.

But not all cities are there yet. Some are still more part of the problem than part of the solution. And often, innovative solutions pioneered in one city cannot be successfully replicated in others. At its annual session on 5-6 December 2019, the UNECE Team of Specialists on Innovation and Competitiveness Policies discussed what city administrations, citizens, businesses and national Governments can do to speed up the transition towards smart sustainable cities.

Networks exist at the national, regional and global levels where cities are exchanging experiences on innovative solutions for urban sustainability challenges. New technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning are key to generate the data and analysis that can make cities smart. But for leading cities, technology is not an end in itself. They use it to empower citizens – including marginalized and vulnerable groups – as well as businesses to identify local needs and to create innovative place-based solutions together with city administrations for people and the environment.

Leading cities provide spaces for experimentation such as living labs or test beds to scale up what is working and stop what is not. They invest in infrastructure and education to make sure everyone has access to new technologies and the opportunities they create. National Governments can support cities in their transition towards sustainability through smart regulation, including on data security and privacy, and through public procurement for innovation, as well as regional policies that bridge the gap between leading cities, their hinterland and smaller communities.

The results of the meeting will inform good practice recommendations to be presented to the UNECE Committee on Innovation, Competitiveness and Public-Private Partnerships in 2020. Subsequently, UNECE will use these good practices in its policy analysis and advice to help member States to further improve their policies in this important field.

The UNECE Team of Specialists on Innovation and Competitiveness Policies is a network of innovation policy experts representing Governments, government agencies, the business and academic communities and civil society from throughout the UNECE region.

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Urban Development

Nature-based solutions generate greener urban renewal

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BY CALEB DAVIES

While nature is good for the body and mind, nature-based solutions are being adopted into urban renewal projects to mitigate the effects of climate change and create healthier communities.

Long lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic offered us a reminder of the restorative power of nature for the body and mind. Yet, reconnecting people with nature, particularly in cities, has been the focus of several European research projects since well before the outbreak of COVID-19 almost three years ago.

These projects are using solutions from nature to tackle fundamental economic, environmental, health and social challenges in a bid to improve urban living conditions in general. They bring together European cities to chart paths toward a more sustainable socio-economic system and improve well-being.

Take Dortmund in Germany, Turin in Italy and Zagreb in Croatia. They are part of a project to add biodiversity-rich greenery to urban areas and to create economically beneficial environmental resources.

‘It’s not just planting a tree,’ said Dr Axel Timpe at RWTH Aachen University in Germany. ‘It’s building a living system that creates a productive output.’

He is coordinating the proGIreg project, which is tackling the challenge of post-industrial regeneration by creating living labs in urban areas.

Dortmund, in the Rhine-Ruhr industrial heartland of Germany, was once a steelmaking hub. Turin, in the shadow of the Alps, is home to the one-time world’s largest car factory at Lingotto, now largely disused. Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, used to have the world’s largest pig farm and a vast sausage-making factory – both now defunct.

While their appearances, geographies and histories differ, the three cities face some similar challenges. Lacking high quality green spaces, these areas suffer from social and economic disadvantages.

Urban cultivation

In that context, one of the project’s goals has been to turn a landfill in Dortmund into a park. This area is being cleaned up and planted with trees, while solar panels are used to generate energy and wildflower meadows are cultivated.

The project is also fostering urban farming with a particular emphasis on fish and plants – a food production system known as aquaponics. This combination of fish farming (aquaculture) and cultivating plants without soil (hydroponics) uses less land than traditional agriculture.

Nutrient rich aquaculture water is fed to the plants in an ancient form of food production that has found a new role to play in urban areas. Working with local citizens, the project’s aquaponics systems make local food production more economically viable.

Turin has given over land to volunteers to open an urban farm in a post-industrial neighbourhood, where a range of activities takes place, according to Dr Timpe.

The volunteers rent out plots for people to use as gardens and aquaponics are used to grow high-quality herbs for local restaurants. There’s a garden for people with special needs. Cooking and gardening classes are offered there too.

‘The whole thing is also a business,’ said Dr Timpe. ‘The volunteers who run this now make their living from it, and they have a small shop on site as well.’

Enlisting nature

The overall goal of such projects is to make our cities better places to live through “nature-based solutions” – or NBS (see box below). That means enlisting nature to tackle the biggest threats of our age – including threats to food, water, biodiversity, human health, the economy and the climate.

The classic example of using NBS is the planting of tropical trees known as mangroves along coasts in Papua New Guinea to defend them from erosion. Another example is, the installation in Malmö, Sweden of green roofs, which are used to cool buildings in summer and prevent heat loss in winter, and a system of open soil drainage, biodiversity-rich ponds and overflow areas, which helps to improve drainage mitigating the risk of flooding.

The researchers are looking beyond technical solutions, getting to grips with tricky questions such as the role of local communities in designing and implementing NBS and the best way to combine multiple nature-based solutions.

Along with Dortmund, Turin and Zagreb in their front-runner roles, proGIreg is working with several follower cities to build on lessons learned so far. These are Cascais in Portugal, Cluj-Napoca in Romania, Piraeus in Greece and Zenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Dr Timpe and his team are producing a catalogue of business models that can help local people keep the activities running sustainably.

Social focus

Another project developing nature-based solutions is called URBiNAT, which is working initially with three cities including Sofia (Bulgaria), Nantes (France) and Porto (Portugal).

URBiNAT has a particularly strong social focus. At a later stage, Brussels in Belgium, Siena in Italy, Høje-Taastrup in Denmark, Nova Gorica in Slovenia and other places are due to join. People living on the outskirts of these places frequently lack good jobs and feature high rates of school absenteeism.

‘Often, they also feel very disconnected from the city they live in,’ said Dr Gonçalo Canto Moniz at the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra in Portugal, speaking of community residents. He is coordinating URBiNAT with Isabel Ferreira, Nathalie Nunes and Beatriz Caitana.

‘There is no sense of belonging.’

Their project seeks to expand on the concept of NBS so that it also takes account of human nature. Concretely, this means the development of things like local markets, where the focus is not so much on growing trees and plants as on fostering a sense of community. They also find ways to blend the natural and the social, like a winter garden that also functions as an outdoor classroom.

URBiNAT creates NBS in concert with locals but it stands out for the way it clusters NBS in groups. The thinking here is that, by linking up NBS in a particular area, it magnifies the positive effects.

Health corridors

Dr Canto Moniz and his team took inspiration from the concept of “green corridors” which are areas of land given back to nature so that animals and insects can move around unhindered. They wanted to explore what they called a “healthy corridor” to connect disadvantaged neighbourhoods. So far, the project has set up a whole catalogue of wide-ranging NBS – from community gardens to green walls – in the front-runner cities.

Aerial technology is used to collect evidence of the results. Drones fitted with thermal imaging cameras will be deployed to determine how much newly planted trees and other greenery have reduced street-level temperatures. Surveys conducted with locals will compare their socio-economic wellbeing before and after the NBS are put in place.

The projects of Dr Canto Moniz and Dr Timpe both began in 2018 and will conclude next year although their NBS have no end dates.

‘They’re here to stay,’ said Dr Timpe.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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Urban Development

Building Age-Ready Cities

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Authors: Maitreyi Bordia Das, Yuko Arai and Yoonhee Kim*

China needs to tackle three priorities to prepare itself better for a more urban future as it embraces for an aging society

Two dramatic demographic trends are transforming the world today-population aging and urbanization. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities and towns, an increase of more than 10 percentage points from 2018. In 1990, older persons comprised 6 percent of the global population; by 2050 they will make up 16 percent. That means one in six people in the world will be 65 or over, and 20 percent of them will be over 80.

Aging has a gender dimension, too. Since women live longer than men do, the future is not just older: it is also more female. This has implications for property and other resources that women can secure over their lifetime and are left with if their husbands die, especially, if the women do not have independent sources of income. Aging has gendered connotations in another way as well: caregivers of older persons tend to be overwhelmingly women.

These trends are global but apply to China with particular urgency. Over 12 percent of China’s population was 65 or older in 2019, but this will double by 2050. At the same time, China is urbanizing rapidly, with almost 60 percent of its population living in cities and towns in 2018. By 2050, a staggering 80 percent of its population will be urban.

While simultaneous aging and urbanization are seen by many as a challenge, with the right policies the two trends can be turned into an opportunity. The key to this is to make cities ready for an aging population. As a recent World Bank report “Silver Hues: Building Age-Ready Cities” argues, age-readiness is not just good for older persons, but benefits the whole society. For example, when cities construct accessible sidewalks, they also benefit persons in wheelchairs, parents with strollers, and manual workers carrying heavy loads.

An age-ready city is also conducive to persons with disabilities. While aging cannot be conflated with disability, it is estimated 46 percent of persons aged 60 and older-are living with disabilities. In fact, most of us will have a brush with disability at some point in our lives-either temporarily or permanently-or as caregivers and proxies of older persons and persons with disabilities.

The benefits of designing cities for older persons are reason enough to make the requisite investments. But age-readiness also has direct benefits for the economy as well. Older persons constitute a large and growing market for goods and services. They are important consumers of healthcare, transport, technology, housing and entertainment. They often have a lifetime of savings that they can tap to live their senior years in comfort. The private sector has much to gain from this expanding market, as reflected in rising investments in the “silver “economy.

China foresaw its aging economy and society decades ago. “Smart elder care”-using technology wisely to meet the diverse and increasing demand of older persons, is scaling up at a rapid pace, with some of China’s largest companies entering the market, often in partnership with local governments. Shandong province, for example, has an online hospital that provides a variety of services, including consultations with doctors, diagnosis, prescriptions, disease management and other follow-up services. This has been particularly useful during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the service saves patients from in-person hospital visits and reduces pressure on the healthcare system.

In pursuit of universal accessibility, China also established the Code for the Design of Residential Buildings for the Aged in 1999 as the design standard to meet the needs of aging adults. This is applicable to both new and renovated buildings. China’s richer coastal cities offer many examples of improved accessibility and boast a growing commercial market for elderly care.

While China has been an “early mover” in harnessing the gains of its aging population, based on the analysis in the World Bank report, four priorities stand out for China to prepare itself better for an older and more urban future.

First, China’s accessibility standards in urban design need to be better enforced. Universal accessibility of the built environment requires training urban planners, architects, construction engineers and other professionals. Such capacity building is critical if accessibility is not to remain an add-on or an afterthought.

Second, building new infrastructure or repurposing the old needs financing. While it is more cost-effective to build in accessibility features during construction, many old buildings will need to be refurbished toward age-readiness. Public private partnerships can be harnessed to mobilize the requisite commercial funding.

Third, given the additional costs of making cities age-ready, China will need to pay special attention to cities and towns, as well as individuals and households with fewer resources. Innovative solutions will need to be encouraged, from low-cost medical technologies to new forms of community-based care, particularly in rural areas where outward migration has undermined the traditional model of family-based care.

These priorities should ideally be central to China’s growth agenda. Successful cities of the future will be those where older persons can contribute to their fullest potential and be partners in the country’s growth and development.

*Maitreyi Bordia Das is practice manager in the Global Practice for Urban, Resilience and Land at the World Bank. Yuko Arai is urban specialist in the East Asia and Pacific Region of the World Bank. Yoonhee Kim is the World Bank’s sector leader for Sustainable Development in China. 

First published on China Daily/ World Bank

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Urban Development

Inclusive cities critical to post-pandemic recovery

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Participants at the World Urban Forum being held in Katowice, Poland. Photo: UN Habitat

A UN conference on transforming the world’s urban areas is underway in Poland this week, which will include a dialogue on urban crisis recovery and reconstruction, centered on neighbouring Ukraine.

Hundreds of delegates from across the globe will be attending the World Urban Forum, which opened on Sunday in the southern Polish city of Katowice.

WUF11 is taking place at a critical time, as cities tackle the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate emergency and conflict.

Making cities more inclusive must be part of post-pandemic recovery efforts, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in remarks to the event.

Cities are central to virtually every challenge we face – and essential to building a more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient future. They have been at the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the UN chief said in a video message.

“As we look to recover, promoting more inclusive, gender responsive urban infrastructure and services will be critical to give all people – especially young people, women and girls – access to a better future.”

Cities as climate leaders

Mr. Guterres also highlighted another important role for the world’s cities.  They must be at the forefront of action to keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change,

More and more cities across the world are committing to the goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, or before.

The sooner these commitments are translated into concrete actions, the sooner countries will achieve green job growth, better health, and greater equality, he said.

“But cities cannot do it alone,” he stressed.  “They need more coordinated support from all levels of government; stronger partnerships with the private sector and civil society; and greater fiscal and policy space to bring solutions to scale.”

Harness the potential

The Secretary-General underlined the UN’s commitment to help countries achieve the common goal of green, just and healthy cities.

“We have the blueprints for progress,” he said, referring to the New Urban Agenda, a 2016 framework that promotes sustainable urbanization; the ongoing Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as the 2030 Local Coalition, a partnership between the UN and government leaders to advance the SDGs.

“Let us harness the transformative potential of urbanization and build a more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive future for all.”

The World Urban Forum was established in 2001 and is convened biannually by UN-Habitat, officially the United Human Settlements Programme, which works for a better urban future.

With only eight years left to make cities safer, resilient and more inclusive, the goal of SDG 11, urban areas across the world are already under pressure.

‘Triple C crisis’

The strain will only mount as every region is expected to become more urbanized, some at an incredibly rapid pace.

The global urban population is set to jump from 56 per cent last year to nearly 70 per cent by mid-century, representing a further 2.2 billion people, mainly in Africa and the Middle East.

“While the current reality is undoubtedly very difficult, we must maintain our focus and double our efforts on sustainable development,” said Maimunah Mohd Sharif, the UN-Habitat Executive Director. 

“We urgently need innovative solutions for urban areas to respond to this triple C crisis of COVID, climate and conflict, which are having a devastating impact on cities, leaving people and places behind,” she added.

Special focus on Ukraine

The UN Forum is the  leading global conference on sustainable urbanization, and this marks the first time it is being held in Eastern Europe.  Poland is proud to play host. 

“This is a region that has come a long way – from communist rule, which had little regard for human life, let alone its quality, to democratic governments working for the common good,”  said Grzegorz Puda, Minister of Development Funds and Regional Policy.

More than 800 government officials and representatives, including over 50 ministers and deputy ministers, will attend the Forum which is co-organized by the Government of Poland and the city of Katowice.

The programme has been significantly modified to reflect the conflict in neighboring Ukraine, UN-Habitat said. More than three million Ukrainians have taken refuge in Poland since the war began four months ago. In his remarks, the UN Secretary-General expressed gratitude for the country’s “extraordinary solidarity” with Ukrainian refugees.

The Polish Government will spearhead a special session focused on the post-crisis and post-disaster reconstruction of urban spaces and population return. 

“We must also remember all those who are facing crisis at the moment in countries affected by war and disaster, such as Ukraine. In this context, we decided to include the topic of rebuilding cities after crises in the WUF11 programme,” said Małgorzata Jarosińska-Jedyna, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Development Funds and Regional Policy.

Abandoning coal, embracing technology

Katowice, which hosted the COP24 UN climate conference four years ago, was chosen largely due to its successful transition from a centre of the coal and steel industries, to a city based on technology, culture and events.

The Forum will be the first big international meeting held there since the start of the pandemic.  More than 16,000 people are expected at the city’s International Congress Centre, built on the site of a former coal mine. 

“Our city has undergone enormous changes in the last two decades,” said Marcin Krupa, Mayor of Katowice.  “I believe that cities are the engines of change towards creating a better world – one that is safer, more sustainable and inclusive.” 

The Forum will conclude on Friday and the expected outcome is the Katowice Declared Actions, which will outline commitments and plans to support sustainable urbanization.

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