Urbanisation aids transition to green economy

More than half the world’s human population now lives in urban areas and cities are increasingly facing the challenge of ensuring decent standards of living for their inhabitants. Demand for a higher quality of life is increasing despite growing pressures on natural resources and ecosystems.

But a report by the United Nations Environment Programme, or UNEP, and Cities Alliance says the rapid pace of urbanisation represents an opportunity to build more sustainable, innovative and equitable towns and cities, and to use the world's natural resources more efficiently.

The report, Integrating the Environment in Urban Planning and Management: Key principles and approaches for cities in the 21st century, offers strategies for decision-makers to introduce measures that can spur inclusive economic growth and reduce poverty, while ensuring sustainable levels of consumption and production.

Action on cities needed

"It is clear that the decisions and actions needed to move society towards more sustainable patterns of consumption and production will need to focus on, and be delivered in, cities," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

"Cities are well placed to play a major role in decoupling economic development from resource use and environmental impacts, while finding a better balance between social, environmental and economic objectives."

Urban areas occupy just 2% of the world's land area but consume up to 75% of its natural resources. In addition, estimates indicate that cities are responsible for 75% of global CO2 emissions, with transport and buildings being among the largest contributors.

"It is essential that national governments create the space for cities to play a much larger role in transforming unsustainable patterns of human development," said William Cobbett, director of Cities Alliance.

"As we have witnessed in Medellin in Colombia, local actions which directly engage and benefit communities can be truly transformative. However, cities need to integrate the environment into their planning before and not after urbanisation."

The report notes that negative environmental impacts from cities occur both directly – through the consumption of resources and the emission of greenhouse gases in cities themselves – and indirectly, through the use of raw materials and energy in distant locations to produce goods and services.

Some of the world's wealthiest and superficially cleanest cities may therefore concentrate the consumption of goods whose production may be elsewhere, but which entails both pollution and resource depletion.

Nevertheless, the report finds that urban areas by their very nature provide a range of ‘sustainability multipliers’ that can be tapped to address social and environmental burdens. These include lower costs per capita for providing services in densely populated areas, greater options for recycling, and better opportunities for the use of public transport.

Proactive measures

At the same time, city leaders can take a variety of proactive measures to help to improve resource efficiency and reduce negative environmental impacts. These include:
  • • Mainstreaming environmental priorities into city-level and local development plans, in particular through city development strategies that work to reconcile urban economic growth with better resource efficiency.
  • • Incorporating emerging ideas about the green urban economy, which show how density can generate environmental and social opportunities, including through green urban infrastructure.
  • • Integrating greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies in urban planning and management, which can reduce the impact that cities have on the global environment while improving the quality of life for urban residents.
  • • Creating ‘green jobs’.
  • • Undertaking environmental rehabilitation projects that can enhance ecosystem services, improving the quality of the environment while reducing costs of remedial air and water treatment.
  • • Expanding access to energy through greening energy supplies, which can provide electricity to households that were previously reliant on wood or kerosene.
  • • Underpinning each of these strategies with strong political support and commitment.
The report also examines practical mechanisms for funding urban environmental activities, noting that financial limitations have frequently impeded meaningful environmental activities in the past.

The latest report is a follow-up from a 2007 joint effort between UNEP and Cities Alliance that culminated in the report Livable Cities: The benefits of urban environment planning, which brought together case studies from cities around the world where specific tools, metrics and measures for strategic urban planning were used.

* UNEP has been a member since 2003 of the Cities Alliance, a global partnership for urban poverty reduction, promoting and strengthening the role of cities in sustainable development. Cities Alliance members include local authorities, national governments, non-governmental organisations and other multilateral organisations.