One of the positive outcomes to emerge from the Rio+20 summit last year was the UN Environment Programme’s Global Initiative for Resource Efficient Cities (GI-REC) In trying to plot a way towards sustainable urban development it aims to reduce pollution and infrastructure costs while improving efficiency in cities across the world. The GI-REC will work with local and national governments, the private sector and civil society groups to promote energy efficient buildings, efficient water use, sustainable waste management and other activities.
What will the GI-REC do?
The GI-REC will support sustainability efforts in cities through three core activities:
• Promoting research on resource efficiency and sustainable consumption and production;
• Providing access and advice for city decision-makers on technical expertise, capacity building and funding opportunities for improving resource efficiency; and
• Creating a network for cities and organizations to exchange experiences and peer-review projects for mutual benefit.
Cities with populations of 500,000 or more are invited to join the initiative, which aims to attract 200 members by 2015. The website lists a number of cities that have signed up, though none from the UK are there. GI-REC is an example of a bottom-up approach and the belief that there is more political will to deal with major environmental challenges at local government than at central government level.
Why do cities matter so much?
Today, urban areas account for 50% of all waste, generate 60-80% of all greenhouse gas emissions and consume 75% of natural resources, yet occupy only 3% of the Earth’s surface. As regular readers of this blog will know, this is only the start. A combination of natural increase and rural to urban migration means that we are already witnessing a surge of urban development across the planet that has no precedent. There are expected to be over 3 billion additional people living in cities in a time-span of just 80 years, primarily in Africa and Asia.
However, if the cities are the problem they are also the solution. They are where practical action now can make a difference. Furthermore, like any UN report in the urban field, the call is for pro-poor and pro-people strategies developed through participatory processes. While the idea of “pro-poor planning” gets virtually no airing, still less practice, in highly urbanised countries like the UK, it appears regularly in UN documents, which are global statements from the international community, and not just about the rapidly urbanising countries of the Global South. At a time when governments across Europe are pushing their poor into deeper deprivation, the call for “pro-poor planning” needs to be heard more widely.
How can cities transition?
A report produced to support the initiative says that four things are needed to achieve a successful transition. These are:
1. a city based approach, with
2. integrated planning,
3. adequate platforms for wide-ranging collaboration, and
4. engendering values that support sustainability.
A key message is that new infrastructure alone will not solve the problem. Behaviour matters too, and there is a need for vision and leadership, implementation and coordination capacity, and monitoring and evaluation.
Public transport initiatives have a high potential to drive city-scale awareness and transition. They are described as reliable ways to bring about large scale changes in behaviour that will impact on energy use and emissions. Good public transport can relieve congestion (and so enhance productivity) and air pollution (and so improve health), improve access and mobility, create jobs, relieve alienation of the urban poor, and get more people onto the streets of the city rendering it a safer, more liveable and humane urban domain. The familiar examples of Curitiba and Bogota are cited.
Low-carbon, zero-carbon and eco-city approaches are also highlighted. For example, there is reference to the situation in Johannesburg where concerns with energy poverty and security have translated into the introduction of smart-grid oriented technologies that enable renewable energy, energy savings management and consumption at district scales and perhaps even at smaller scales (buildings, malls). Johannesburg has also developed the high-speed Gautrain (which I have ridden and recommend), and a new bus rapid transit system. Thus the aim has been to move to a more low-carbon, low-energy form of urban development while also addressing concerns such as energy poverty, unemployment, lack of small to medium enterprise growth and access and mobility.
Embedding sustainability across sectors
Place-based implementation that cuts across sectors is a key to more sustainable urban development, as the Johannesburg example illustrates. This requires institutions that can make the connections and break down traditional silos. This is a role that higher education or research institutes can fulfil, by knowledge and technology development and skills transfer. Observatories can also play a part in awareness raising and monitoring transitions. However, funding is also needed, but so is participation to open debates and build consensus.
One key issue, which I touched upon in a previous blog, is what indicators to use for monitoring? A wide range of potential indicators is set out (in an Appendix to the report underpinning the GI-REC). They are separated into two broad categories, each with sub-categories, as follows:
• Measures by infrastructure theme categories – i.e. building energy efficiency, waste management, sustainable urban transport, water and wastewater and urban ecosystem management. While these measures are theme-specific, they also have cross-cutting impacts.
• Measures for integration and establishing aggregation criteria – city-scale decoupling, qualitative assessments of research, innovation, policy and business. These measures can be aggregated from measures within infrastructure theme categories.
Each measure is classified in terms of whether it contributes to the three broad categories of decoupling, liveability, and skills and innovation.
The firm Infrangilis, which specialises in resilience strategies is working with Sustainable Cities International is to undertake a strategic mapping exercise of the leading initiatives around the world on resource efficiency in cities. Philip Monaghan from Infrangilis tells me that this will range from BioRegional’s ‘One Planet Communities’ and C40 Cities through to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s ‘Urban Infrastructure Initiative’ and the World Economic Forum’ ‘Slim Cities’. The aim is “to understand barriers to taking action and identify gaps in existing knowledge in order to recommend priorities to UNEP on GI-REC work areas over the coming years. The strategic mapping exercise is part of a broader research project which includes a global survey on resource efficiency in cities, conducted by ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability. The project findings will be released in Summer 2013.”
Local resilience, global linkages
Better integration is seen as the key to achieve a more sustainable settlement. Other success factors for transition to sustainable, resource-efficient urban development include:
• addressing socio-economic divides within the city;
• the inclusion of bottom-up participatory governance processes in infrastructure change programmes;
• smart urban logistics and spatial planning;
• smart design, finance, technology and skills transfer and development
There are no great surprises in that list. The aim should be to progress to places that combine local resilience and global connections. However, we still lack the professional skills and political will to deliver on them. Too often the education and practice of planners and local politicians is still locked into the mindsets of land use regulation with a neo-liberal veneer. It is time to change.
This blog was first posted on the Planning Resource website on 5 February 2013.
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