Cities central to climate and sustainable development – World Urban Campaign

Empowering local communities and city leaders to care for the environment is central to climate challenge

(Pic: UN Photos)

(Pic: UN Photos)

By Leo Barasi in Nairobi

Over half of the world’s population live in cities. They generate nearly 80% of global GDP, and use 70% of energy, according to the New Climate Economy report.

What’s more, they are growing fast. Over a million head to urban areas every year. By 2050 nearly two thirds of us will live in built-up areas.

As humans migrate towards the bright lights the need for coherent planning solutions has never been greater.

Next year the UN will host Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador, an important meeting which could build on achievements at the UN’s climate and Sustainable Development Goal summits in 2015.

It’s likely to be a melting pot of visions where sustainable development policies, cities and communities will be debated by governments.

RTCC is partnering with the World Urban Campaign in the lead up to the summit.

A platform for cities, it aims to empower leaders to make the strategic choices that will shape their environment for the next century.

RTCC spoke to the WUC’s project manager Christine Auclair at its headquarters in Nairobi to find out more about the campaign’s aspirations.

Leo Barasi: What is the World Urban Campaign (WUC)?

Christine Auclair: The WUC is a global platform representing six million people through 115 organisations and networks. What brings us together is the conviction that cities are at the heart of development.

According to the WUC partners, the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities. That coalition of common interest is looking at the developmental challenges, saying that the way we plan, build and manage cities is unsustainable and leads to environmental degradation, health and societal issues. They are direct threats to all of us.

So how to fix cities and make them sustainable? We are looking at urban solutions. Consensus building is important – at grassroots, among architects, planners, mayors, private sector, industries, women, youth. Those partners are around the table to talk about ‘the city we need’. The idea is to go beyond ‘the city we want’ and to really envisage the essential and vital needs we need for our future.

LB: What has gone wrong in the way cities and urban areas are constructed at the moment?

CA: We can see that current cities consume a huge amount of energy, emit 70% of global greenhouse gases and 70% of waste. They are leading to environmental degradation, health, security that are threats to all. This is unsustainable.

Heavy pollution shrouds sunset in Beijing (Pic: Theis Kofoed Hjorth/Flickr)

Heavy pollution shrouds sunset in Beijing (Pic: Theis Kofoed Hjorth/Flickr)

Poor planning, urban sprawl and unconstrained construction and development are the new diseases of the century. While those are huge challenges, this clearly presents opportunities. It means in short that if you can fix cities, you can fix the problem. This can be done through more compact and connected urban areas.

Regenerative is a new concept that some WUC partners are pushing. It’s to say a city can regenerate, for example waste can be used for energy, transport, lighting. It can be transformative.

LB: What’s the significance of the Habitat III conference?

CA: The Conference will be a very important moment. It will come one year after the post the 2015 development summit. We are looking at the Sustainable Development Goals to implement progressive targets at a city level. We are hoping to have one of those SDGs (11) focused on cities.

At the moment everything that is not government is not really heard. Non-governmental partners do not feel included and that’s why they have created a parallel process, and designed the General Assembly of Partners, a special initiative of the WUC.

They are currently preparing a joined position called The City We Need that they will put forward to UN member states before and at the Habitat III Conference.

LB: How will this tie into this year’s UN climate summit in Paris?

CA: All of the major conferences in 2015 will have an impact, definitely. The SDGs will be the first one but the COP will have a major impact on our thinking. For us what is especially interesting is the future role of local authorities in addressing climate change and ultimately urban sustainability.

LB: Your slogan is “I’m a city changer” – what does this mean?

CA: This was created to say that we need a new urban paradigm. It is time to change and redefine the way we think ‘urban’ and how we design, build, manage and perceive cities. Also, the idea is to generate an inclusive process. It’s crucial to reach out to citizens, because this should not be anchored in institutions only. It’s still a way to reach out to citizens.

LB: What could a citizen do?

CA: Many things. Using public transport, also think about the way they live. If you live in a sprawl that’s less efficient, so perhaps accept you need to live in a more compact dense area in the heart of a large city. We need to think more about urban life. It’s also about life in a neighbourhood – what can people do to engage?

Encouraging the provision and use of public transport is a major part of the World Urban Campaign strategy (Pic: Kevin Poh/Flickr)

Rethinking public transport is a major part of the World Urban Campaign strategy (Pic: Kevin Poh/Flickr)

LB: What kind of urban future are you advocating? 

CA: People need to be at the heart of a new urban paradigm and come first. Well planned cities, walkable, transit friendly. Schools close to homes, Offices near transit [metro] stops.

Open spaces for recreation. It should be resilient. Energy efficient, low carbon. Reliant on renewable energy. We should also recall culture and human dignity, a sense of place with a human scale, and safety is essential.

LB: UN-Habitat is focusing heavily on this being a data-led drive… with cities sharing knowledge. What role will WUC have in this?

CA: We have a working group working on that… especially in context of the urban SDG campaign. It’s very important to start the process and design key indicators to be part of monitoring at a city and country level.

Monitoring is extremely complex. It’s important to start a process and consider the most essential indicators for monitoring at country level.

One of the main challenges is there is no unique definition of what a city is? What is urban? You cannot compare a city in China to one in Kenya to one in France. Comparison is very difficult. There are enormous variations.

LB: What major challenges do you face? 

CA: One is that of comparison – which I have just mentioned. In 2000 – while we were creating the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) we started to try and define what a slum is.

We established there were five components we could use to try and define this: access to water, sanitation, durability of structure, security of tenure and the area per person.

But how you compare countries and get them to collect that data is challenging. How do you compare the durability of housing in France to Kenya? How do you compare a slum in Nairobi to London?

These baseline indicators are challenging. However, the estimates that UN-Habitat provides are very useful for policy purpose. This clearly a progress to measure the health of a city and establish urban trends since the Habitat II Conference in 1996.

LB: What aspect of the WUC are you most proud of?

CA: I think this would be the General Assembly of Partners. If you look at what happened at Rio+20 (the 2012 Earth Summit) many partners complained they had lost out in terms of the final resolution. The problem was that partners were fighting from their different angles and perspective, and were clearly not ready together.

Now we have decided for the first time to bring all partners around the table. Now I find it amazing to have a slum dweller talking to a multinational about how we can fix urban areas.

It started in 2010 with the launch of the WUC and I think this can succeed, and we can build a consensus in the text around the city we need. If it’s compelling proposal from a group of influential partners, then I think it will be taken seriously.

To find out more about Habitat III and the World Urban Campaign visit their website. RTCC will be running a series of features on urban environments and sustainability over the next 12 months.

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