Cities, Climate Change

This afternoon I listened to a brilliant panel discussion in the Cities and Regions Pavilion, this time organised by UNHabitat and Cities Alliance with panellists from Cities Alliance, OECD, Slum Dwellers International, the German and French National Governments, and City Mayors from South Africa and India. The panellists were all asked to give their perspectives on ‘Climate Action in Cities’, but – quite rightly – the conversation broadened into one covering urban challenges more generally. It’s all so interlinked… The panel shared insights on the cities where they are working, or the projects they are implementing and discussed many of the challenges and barriers to action. The session was fantastic, primarily because the panellists so clearly articulated many of the points that we already understand well from our own work in cities.

Cities often have the solutions – the group cited re-planning and re-settlement programmes in Bangladesh, transport and mobility programmes in Medellin and Mexico City, solar power projects in Johannesburg, and sewer improvement programmes in Beira, Mozambique as great examples of cities that have found, and are delivering their own solutions to urban problems.

Bottom up, top down people power – there was a call for slum dwellers to be consulted in urban planning projects to make sure local expertise is captured. Examples were outlined of slums that have already delivered imaginative projects – e.g. collecting biogas from communal toilets to generate energy and fertilizer. In parallel there was an acknowledgment that it can be challenging to connect the money and the ideas. Lack of financial models and instruments to access the cash, legal constraints, or simply lack of human resource in local governments were all cited as problems.

Better dialogue and collaboration – national governments, regional and local governments need to work harder to drive efficiency. So much effort gets wasted by multiple local authorities working to deliver the same or similar things, each overcoming the same obstacles. National and regional governments can work harder to direct traffic, share lessons and properly distribute funds. Dakar was mentioned as a city that had worked hard on dialogue and partnerships to leverage finance for urban projects, and which had struggled to overcome some hurdles.

Cities need to be higher up the governance pecking order – local and city government is often viewed as less important than regional, state, federal or national government. If the city’s role is growing, and they are getting more autonomy, then it has to be more attractive to work at this level of government. We need the best people in city governance positions to help create and deliver the city’s ambitions. Graduates need to want to work in local government!

Second tier cities growing fastest – if you’ve heard of the city it probably has resources. It’s the ones you’ve not heard of that need attention. It’s the second tier of cities where the mass growth is coming from; it is also these cities that struggle most with resources and capacity.

Spatial planning framework essential – most of the problems in developing cities are not really caused by climate change – of course this compounds the problem – but the real issue is just that stuff’s in the wrong place! In many of these second-tier, low-capacity cities there’s no planning happening. These places need a 2030 or 2050 vision, a framework – something for the children!

Hearing people working across several continents, and speaking so knowledgably about such a wide range of cities brings home just how much work there is still to do. In the [paraphrased] words of William Cobbett of Cities Alliance, “In many of these places there is simply no plan; bad decisions at the local level and no attention to the urban poor leads to people being dislocated to the most dangerous land”.

Download AECOM’s ‘Designing City Resilience, Emerging City Report’.


ben smith cropBen Smith is a director of sustainable development for AECOM.

Ben Smith

Originally published Dec 8, 2015

Author: Ben Smith