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Urban Development

Building urban resilience in the face of COVID-19

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As COVID-19 continues to spread across the UNECE region, local governments are on the front lines of addressing this unprecedented pandemic. With the ambition to amplify local solutions, UNECE will bring together mayors from Europe, North America, Central Asia and the Caucasus to strengthen the resilience of cities to emergencies, including to COVID-19. With some 75% of the population living in cities, the UNECE region is among the most highly urbanized in the world, turning resilient cities into key drivers for sustainable development in the region.

The  Forum of Mayors will be held on 6 October 2020 at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, with possibilities for online participation. While local responses to the COVID-19 pandemic has taken the immediate focus in many cities, the Forum will also give space to discuss long-term resilience strategies in cities, including actions mitigating the effects of climate change and natural hazards.

UNECE region in the eye of the storm of COVID-19

As the UNECE region has become the hardest-hit hotspot of the COVID-19 pandemic, cities play a crucial role in mitigating and adapting to the virus. ​​The original focus of the Forum has been adjusted to now provide space for mayors to share different local policy responses aiming to protect the health of residents, address the unprecedented social and economic impact of the virus and keep forging a path to a more sustainable and resilient future.

Urban resilience, however, is not limited to the response to pandemics. Tackling the climate crisis remains one of the key challenges of our times. Today, cities are a key contributor to climate change: they consume roughly 60% of the planet’s energy and generate 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. However, cities are also an integral part of the solution in tackling the climate emergency. Leadership on local level is crucial for ambitious climate action, with cities playing an increasingly prominent role in advancing actions to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. The impact of climate change on urban life is visible throughout the UNECE region, including through increased numbers of extreme weather events such as floods, storms and other natural hazards.

Cities are crucial for achieving the SDGs by 2030

With only ten years left to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is important to recognize the key role of cities as drivers for a sustainable transformation. SDG 11 provides a clear set of targets and indicators for making cities and human settlements more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. But city action is not only critical for the achievement of SDG 11 – it is crucial to reach all 17 SDGs by 2030. In fact, it has been estimated that 65% of the total SDG targets need to be delivered by local authorities and actors.

Forum of Mayors: amplifying local voices for collective action

Following-up on the discussions of the Day of Cities convened by UNECE in April 2019, its Committee on Urban Development, Housing and Land Management has decided to convene a Forum of Mayors in 2020 and 2021. The Forum will submit its recommendations to the Committee on how to address the challenges faced by local authorities in the region. This will help shape the policy priorities and programme activities of the intergovernmental Committee, which is composed of representatives of UNECE’s 56 members States. Preceding the Forum, “SDG 11 Day” will bring together partners and key stakeholders for an expert exchange on the most pressing issues on urban sustainability.

Urban Development

Thailand’s Smaller Cities Can Help Drive Economic Growth and Reduce Inequality

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Thailand’s cities outside Bangkok can accelerate the country’s growth but will need to find ways to access private capital to improve urban infrastructure, a World Bank study produced with the Program Management Unit on Area Based Development (PMU-A) and Khon Kaen University says.

Bangkok has long been the country’s hub of economic growth and productivity. But as that growth slows, cities such as Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, and Rayong could pick up the baton with investments in mass transit systems, renewable energy, and other urban infrastructure, which will be critical for Thailand’s competitiveness and ability to adapt to a changing climate according to the study, “Thailand Urban Infrastructure Finance Assessment.” However, to fund these investments, cities cannot rely solely on central government budgets, and should consider municipal borrowing and public-private partnerships, the report says.

Urban growth will provide benefits to city and country populations alike through more reliable transportation and electrification and access to markets, education, and health services. It will enable people, goods, and services to move efficiently within and across cities to promote growth, jobs, and improve the quality of life. Public services such as water and wastewater and solid waste management bring environmental as well as health benefits.  A more robust urban infrastructure will provide resilience against floods and droughts.

“Secondary cities can drive growth and alleviate rural poverty by generating accessible opportunities for those living in rural areas,” said Patricia Mongkhonvanit, Director-General of the Public Debt Management Office, Ministry of Finance. “The Ministry of Finance will leverage the insights and findings presented in the study to support urban growth in these cities to meet the needs of the residents, businesses and industries.” 

Enabling Thailand’s secondary cities to raise capital themselves would avoid increasing burdens on the national government’s fiscal resources, the report says. Yet, Thai cities and local governments remain fiscally dependent on central government for infrastructure investments despite decentralization legislation in the 1990s. However, municipalities have the tax bases and operating surpluses necessary to develop creditworthiness and borrowing capacity.

The study urges a “paradigm shift” to give secondary cities the authority, tools, and expertise to finance local infrastructure. Recommended steps include articulating a national strategy to attract private investment for public infrastructure and the creation of government units to monitor and support local infrastructure projects and planning. Greater flexibility, fiscal autonomy, and accountability are necessary for secondary cities if they are to develop their ability to attract investors and lenders, the report says.

“As Thailand strives for sustainable urban development, local fiscal autonomy emerges as a vital pillar,” said Fabrizio Zarcone, World Bank Country Manager for Thailand. Enabling cities to generate and control revenue streams fosters innovation, accountability, and responsiveness to community needs, ultimately leading to more resilient and self-reliant urban areas.”

The study assesses the feasibility of project proposals in five Thai cities – Chiang Mai, Rayong, Nakhon Sawan, Khon Kaen, and Phuket. The report also discusses policies and institutions that govern how city authorities manage their finances, including raising capital for infrastructure investment.

“Municipal borrowing and public-private partnerships offer a reliable path to urban infrastructure development that has been proven in countries around the world,” said Poon Thingburanathum, Deputy Director of Corporate Planning at the Program Management Unit on Area-based Development. “What is needed is a pragmatic national effort to attract private sector capital to invest in urban infrastructure.”

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Urban Development

Walkability in Pakistan

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Walking is a fundamental human activity that has been around since the dawn of civilization. However, with the rise of motorized transportation, cities around the world have been designed to cater to cars rather than pedestrians, this trend has had devastating consequences for the environment, public health, and perhaps most importantly social cohesion.

In Pakistan, the negative effects of car-centric urban planning are particularly pronounced, since this has a social class dimension to it, add to this the presently rising petrol prices and the issue becomes even more imperative. The concept of walkable cities has yet to take hold in the country. Nonetheless, creating a pedestrian-friendly environment is crucial for Pakistan’s sustainable development, and it is not too late to take action.

The concept of a walkable city is simple; it is a city where people can walk safely and comfortably, without facing any barriers. The idea is to create a pedestrian-friendly environment that promotes walking as a mode of transportation. The walkable city concept is not only limited to transportation but also encompasses other aspects such as accessibility to amenities, social interactions, and public spaces.

In Pakistan, the discourse on walkable cities as an urban development strategy is relatively little to zero. An observable manifestation of this can be seen in most of the real estate schemes that have popped up, and the pre-existing urban infrastructure, which seems to be developed to accommodate vehicle mobility rather than pedestrian. Moreso, this lack of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure could also be linked to class differences since most of the pedestrian traffic within Pakistan’s urban hubs comes from individuals of lower socio-economic standing, and often the owner of a vehicle is deemed to have a better economic standing.

What could be done?

The first step towards creating a walkable city is to assess the existing infrastructure and identify the areas that need improvement. Pakistan has a long way to go in this regard. The country’s urban areas are characterized by poor pedestrian infrastructure, unsafe roads, and a lack of accessibility to amenities. The roads are designed primarily for vehicular traffic, and the pedestrian’s needs are often ignored. Furthermore, this increase in vehicle use is often what contributes to traffic congestion and plays part in further degrading the air quality here. It is estimated by WHO that around 60,000 premature deaths occur in Pakistan every year due to air pollution and vehicular emissions are a major contributor to this.

To create a walkable city, Pakistan needs to revamp its infrastructure. The government should invest in developing pedestrian-friendly streets with dedicated sidewalks, crosswalks, and bicycle lanes rather than mega infrastructure projects –This as a consequence will do much to increase our public savings which could be directed toward developing pedestrian infrastructure and other projects geared towards community empowerment. The streets should be well-lit, and the footpaths should be wide enough to accommodate pedestrians and people with disabilities. The government should also prioritize the development of public transport systems that are well-integrated with the pedestrian infrastructure.

Another critical aspect of walkable cities is the availability of public spaces. Public spaces like public parks, and town squares are integral in encouraging greater social interaction and community building. Pakistan’s cities are marked by their lack of green spaces, parks, and playgrounds. The government should invest in creating public spaces that are accessible to everyone. These spaces should be designed in a way that encourages social interactions and fosters a sense of community. And importantly, are made safe for the use of women and children.

Apart from infrastructure, promoting walking as a mode of transportation is also essential. The government should launch campaigns to raise awareness about the benefits of walking and the importance of a healthy lifestyle. The campaigns should target all segments of society, including children, women, and people with disabilities. As noted by the World Health Organization, 19 percent of deaths that occurred in 2016, were caused by heart-related diseases. Similarly alarming, is the number of adults (33 million) that are living with diabetes in Pakistan. Such chronic conditions are easily preventable if individuals engage in regular physical activity like walking.

A goal as such should not seem unattainable since across the globe, examples of walkable cities have illustrated persistently that policies that encourage walkability are met with success and cultivate a greater sense of well-being among its residents.

Walkable cities are the future of sustainable urban living. Pakistan has a lot of catching up to do in terms of creating pedestrian-friendly infrastructure and promoting walking as a mode of transportation. But this idea of creating a walkable city is not quite out of reach, we already have examples of these from the mohallas of Pindi or Androon Peshawar, or the walled city of Lahore, that have a rich history of pedestrian-friendly alleys and streets.

 The government and the private sector should work together to invest in projects that prioritize walkability. In addition to investment, community involvement and engagement are also crucial in creating a walkable city. This can be achieved through community-based initiatives and grassroots movements that prioritize walkability and advocate for pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, which is crucial since a substantial number of individuals’ primary mode of movement is walking.

Moreover, the involvement of women in these initiatives is essential to ensure that the pedestrian infrastructure is safe. Unfortunately, women in Pakistan are often subject to violence and harassment in public spaces, which makes them hesitant to walk or use public transport alone. Therefore, it is necessary to involve women in the planning and design, to ensure that it meets their needs for safe use.

Finally, creating a walkable city requires a shift in mindset and a change in urban planning practices. Instead of prioritizing vehicular traffic, Pakistan’s urban planners need to prioritize people and their needs. This requires a long-term vision that takes into account the changing demographics, tech advancements and global trends in urban planning. A walkable city is not only a more sustainable and inclusive city but also a more vibrant and livable city where people can connect with each other and their environment.

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Urban Development

A City-Led Climate Resilience

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Climate change is becoming a major cause of an increasing rate of weather catastrophes. The heat-trapping greenhouse gas is making Earth’s temperature warms up rapidly from what was planned since the industrial revolution and leading to overlapping problems, especially for the lower to middle-income countries around the equator. Many efforts are strived by stakeholders to minimize negative externalities from climate change, one of them is discussed about loss and damage. For more than 30 years this issue has been raised by developing countries, but the developed countries as the largest emitters always avoid this topic. Last year, at the UN annual climate talks or known as Conference of Parties (COP) 27 at Sharm el-Sheikh, there was a breakthrough regarding the loss and damage. Several countries including Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Scotland, New Zealand, Austria, Ireland, Canada, the US, the UK, Spain, the EU, and France show their commitments to addressing loss and damage fund. When we have been waiting for compensation in an uncertain time and current national action plans are not on track for under a 1.5oC, prior responses from other levels to cope with climate change are done by cities. 

Cities are home to 55 percent of the global population and are expected to grow by 2.5 billion people to 68 percent by 2050. As climate change deprivation many people’s livelihoods, these conditions drive millions of people to migrate to cities with the hope they would gain more opportunities to survive. As a result, many cities have experienced overpopulated and rapid urbanization under climate change without efforts to increase resilience is exposing cities to gain more climate risks. Recorded approximately 225.3 million internal displacements in the Asia and Pacific region happened during 2010 – 2021, especially in the five sub-regions (East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central and West, and Pacific). Increasing mobility in the cities has led to the production of approximately three-quarters of energy-related CO2 of the total global emissions. Recorded that as much as 70 percent of cities worldwide are already dealing with the effect of climate change. 

In efforts to tackle the climate crisis, the local government of the cities needs to reinforce the two-prolonged approach which is mitigation and adaptation. Undertaking a human rights-based approach (HRBA) as city-led climate agenda is a tool for realizing ecosystem-based agenda (EbA) which can be implemented through a local climate change action plan where human rights are a fundamental value. For example, Bilbao is a city council that adopted Charted Values, and Utrecht is a Global Goals City that cooperates with local businesses to raise awareness of their rights and monitors progress on the SDGs dashboard. In Asia, Gwangju has established a human rights department, hosted the annual World Human Rights Cities Forum as one of the most relevant events for bringing local government officials with organizations and other actors to establish and arrange systems to ensure human rights as a core, and implementing localization projects. Another example, in efforts to reduce emissions, Seoul has mandatory for their citizen that should be used all new vehicles to be electric from 2025. In addition, to support this program, the city is released electric vehicle charging infrastructure powered by solar panels which are accessible and provides subsidies for electric vehicles of up to 20 percent with additional support available for low-income households. This policy is expected to reduce emissions by approximately 43 percent compares with 2005 levels and create almost 15.000 jobs.

Moreover, hundreds of cities also show their commitment to accelerating net zero emissions by building networks. Recorded as many as 130 American cities are stepping up their ambition to reduce emissions by joining the Cities Race to Zero to help the US reach its goals of reducing emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2050. Last year, the European Commission also announced 100 cities from the EU member states with 12 additional cities participating in EU Mission for climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030 or known as the Cities Mission. Under this mission, the cities will receive millions of funding in the period 2022-2023 to address clean mobility, energy efficiency, and green urban planning, and offer the possibility to build joint initiatives and ramp up collaborations with other EU programs. The ranking compiled by CDP shows that only 43 out of 596 cities or similar to 7 percent received a top rank for their climate leadership and reduction of emissions, which twenty-one of them are in North America, nine in Europe, four in Australia, one in Latin America and Africa, and four in East Asia.

The proportion above, Asia and Africa have a minimum ‘A’ city in reducing emissions. The report mentioned five barriers that limit urban resilience that are multi-level governance, finance, a local capacity, access to technology and innovation, and equity. The Mayor of the City of Bonn, Mr. Ashok Sridharan said that “The adaptation fund has been instrumental in advancing adaptation to the most vulnerable over the past 10 years and ‘walks the walk’. Cities and regions stand ready to help as global adaptation needs continue to rise”. Nowadays, the ten members of ASEAN with a majority of developed countries have slow progress and struggling in energy transition because they have insecure funds. To achieve ASEAN’s target of 23 percent renewable energy supply by 2025 need an investment of US$ 27 billion per year. However, from 2016 – 2021, the ASEAN countries received no more than US$ 8 billion per year. At the global level, the World Bank estimated an amount of US$ 4.5 – 5.4 trillion per year which 9 – 27 percent part of it is aimed to make an urban infrastructure low-emission and resilient to climate risks. However, UNFCCC released there is a gap of US$ 1.8 – 2.4 trillion per year in financing for climate-resilient infrastructure globally with the majority of needed in urban areas.

Cities become a frontline in adaptation and mitigation because they prioritize sustainably local projects faster than a state. Therefore, with the financial barriers to access technology faced by the local governments, the discussion about climate funds should mobilize in the UN annual meeting about climate to enhance climate resilience as a priority within all of the cities, especially in the developing countries in Asia and Africa.

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