Cities have always had to conform to their natural surroundings. Traditional Moroccan housing was designed with open air courtyards to help with ventilation in the dry and hot climate. While in Iceland, turf houses covered in grass— the original “green buildings”— offered superior insulation in cold weather compared to those made only of wood or stone.
Nature-based solutions have been central to urban design for centuries, but rapid urbanization is stretching cities’ limits. Currently, nearly a third of city inhabitants live in slums and informal settlements, often without access to proper housing and basic services.
The United Nations estimates that close to 68 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050 – nearly an additional 2.4 billion people – with most of this shift occurring in developing countries. Rapid urbanization will also have negative impacts on biodiversity and climate.
To address this issue, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has produced guidelines for governments and policymakers on approaches to sustainable neighbourhoods that meet community needs.
“Sustainable cities and communities start with sustainable neighbourhoods,” said Martina Otto, Head of UNEP’s Cities unit. “By emphasising the importance of local context, design and integration, we aim to inspire all stakeholders involved in urban planning to think sustainably about the daily needs of people in their neighbourhoods.”
An eco-city in Nepal
One of the cities that UNEP is working with is Lalitpur, in Nepal’s Kathmandu valley. When it was built about 1720 years ago, city planners ensured that open spaces, water availability and ground water recharge were inclusive.
But urbanization and growth have deteriorated the quality of life in new neighbourhoods. Today, Lalitpur is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, with many residents lacking basic facilities, like water supply and sanitation, and with few green spaces.
UNEP is working with the city government to reinstate Lalitpur as an eco-city. Starting with three neighbourhoods, the consort will construct seven parks, install smart, solar lights; reduce waste to landfill; cut down open burning; and give residents access to health facilities in their neighbourhoods, among other benefits.
“Lalitpur is building on its history and local knowledge to create neighbourhoods and a city that is designed for people and with nature,” said Lalitpur Metropolitan City mayor, Chiri Babu Maharjan. “We have already built 4.7 km of bicycle lanes to link the northern and southern parts of the city and installed bicycle stands in public spaces. Thanks to this, air pollution in the city center has greatly improved, and with that, the health and well-being of our citizens.”
On the move in Medellin
Medellin in Colombia is another city where UNEP is working on greening. In the 1960s, millions of internally displaced Colombians set up homes in Moravia, a bustling neighbourhood of Medellin, which at the time held the municipal landfill site. The living conditions were dangerous and many residents suffered serious health consequences from the toxic fumes.
While the neighbourhood has made many advances in sanitation and urban planning since then, city authorities are determined to do more. Medellin is establishing “habitat and mobility corridors” that will simultaneously address mobility issues while creating green spaces and biodiversity. The corridors will be pathways for cyclists and pedestrians to access recreational places such as the local soccer field and cultural centres, but also provide habitats for native animals and plants. They should also have a positive impact on the microclimate by reducing heat and creating shade.