New initiative puts cities at frontline of climate change

A unique multi-level governance initiative that taps the research, innovation and engagement capacity of universities to help cities cope with climate change has been welcomed. However, some African experts say its success will depend on sufficient investment in universities, while some Asian experts say the project could be hamstrung by politics at local levels.

The Sustainable Urban Resilience for the next Generation (SURGe) initiative, the first of its kind aimed at strengthening cities’ resilience to climate change, especially in vulnerable communities, was launched at the 27th session of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP27) hosted at the Egyptian Red Sea city of Sharm El-Sheikh on 20 November.

A joint COP27 presidency-United Nations-Habitat initiative, it puts cities “at the frontline of climate change”.

On the one hand, cities are generating planet-warming emissions. On the other, they are engines of climate action and at the forefront of delivering solutions.

“That is why we need effective multi-level governance to transform cities to be healthy, sustainable, just, inclusive, low-emission and resilient urban systems for a better urban future for all,” according to information released by the SURGe initiative following its launch.

Professor Edgar Pieterse, the South African Research Chair in Urban Policy and director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said SURGe is significant because most African governments have not yet recognised that they need to invest in growing the capabilities of their universities.

He said universities can play a key role in working with city governments and civic organisations to advance a radical transformation in infrastructure technology, design and operationalisation in order to simultaneously address environmental crises (climate and biodiversity) and multidimensional inequality that erodes the capabilities of citizens.

“I hope the SURGe initiative is able to unlock the necessary resources at the scale of the challenges we face. I am encouraged by the wide institutional reach it has but hope it does not proceed as a well-intentioned convening forum unable to mobilise the necessary resources to translate ambition into action,” Pieterse told University World News.

Cities on climate battle map

Cities are home to 55% of the global population – a figure that is expected to grow to 68% by 2050. In addition, urban areas account for about three-quarters of urban-related carbon dioxide emissions. About 70% of cities worldwide are already dealing with the effects of climate change.

“There is growing international awareness that the climate battle will be won or lost in cities,” according to a statement on the SURGe website.

The statement says that greenhouse gas emissions in cities could be reduced by almost 90% by 2050 with technically feasible and available measures, potentially supporting 87 million jobs in 2030 and generating a global economic dividend of US$24 trillion.

However, technological and process innovations do not reach all cities, due to significant research and action gaps. Local governments often lack technical and human resources to address climate issues, in particular in the Global South, according to the initiative.

Extreme weather impacts on urban services, housing, infrastructure, livelihoods, urban ecosystems and cultural practices, as well as the health and well-being of city residents.

Therefore, the initiative will track buildings and housing practices, urban water systems, urban mobility, urban waste and consumption, and urban energy, all of which will be supported by partnerships and collaborations with organisations, including universities in Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States.

Universities participating in SURGe include Cairo University in Egypt, Kenyatta University in Kenya, the National University of Malaysia, the University of Agriculture Faisalabad in Pakistan as well as the University of Oxford (earth sciences) in the United Kingdom, the University of Southern Denmark and the New Polytechnic University of Turin in Italy, along with New York University, the University of Pennsylvania and Kennesaw State University in the United States.

Estimates of the world’s fastest growing cities vary depending on which cities are included. For example, whether they are cities of 100,000 or more, 300,000 or more, and whether the focus is on percentage growth of the population or population growth in absolute numbers. Lists of the former bring up smaller cities while lists of the latter tend to be composed of very large cities or ‘megacities’.

Thus an International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) list of the fastest growing cities by population growth rate from 2000 to 2020 (among cities with 300,000+ inhabitants in 2018) is topped by Doha Industrial Area, Qatar; Xiongan, China; Rupganj, Bangladesh; Gwagwalada, Nigeria; and Miluo, China.

However, their list, on the same webpage, of the fastest growing cities by annual increment in population from 2000-20 is topped by: Delhi, India; Shanghai, China; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Beijing, China; and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Global South cities vulnerable

According to a World Economic Forum/Business Insider report, the world’s 15 fastest growing cities from 2020 to 2035 (of those that had at least 300,000 inhabitants in 2018) are all expected to be in Africa. By 2050, it is estimated that 50% of the African continent’s population will be classified as urban, making it four times the size of Europe’s urban population.

Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, a research professor at the Biotechnology Research Institute in Egypt, told University World News: “SURGe is extremely important for the hot-spot cities and settlements that are highly vulnerable to climate change in the Global South, especially in Africa and Asia.”

According to him, these areas and their cities lack technical and human resources and suffer from weak technological capabilities to support context-specific innovative solutions to tackle the socio-economic challenges that come with urbanisation.

Also welcoming the initiative, Oumar Sylla, the director of the Regional Office for Africa at the Kenya-based United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), told University World News: “There is urgency to build resilient and sustainable cities in Africa, taking into consideration the climate emergency.”

Role of universities

Sylla said that universities can do a lot to bridge knowledge gaps in the connection between cities and climate change: for example, regarding the importance of urban planning and improvement of informal settlements; on the question of climate financing (carbon sequestration for cities and non-public funding); and in relation to governance elements, especially the role of local governments.

“Research innovation will be critical for the African continent in the coming months in addressing climate-related challenges in cities which are rapidly expanding. Data to inform decision-makers will be critical,” Sylla noted.

“Capacity development will be the key in addressing climate-related challenges,” he said, adding that training and the creation of expertise will be important for Africa.

“We need to adapt the curriculum of universities, connect urban planners with climate experts, and nurture the benefits of IT and other innovative technology. We need to establish peer learning systems among universities and research institutions in Africa,” Sylla said.

For Sylla, the brain drain means that more incentives to do research in Africa and to serve the continent, especially for those specialising in local government and administration, are also necessary.

According to Pieterse, universities need to play a role through inter- and transdisciplinary research to ensure that policy-makers have the best evidence and data to understand how complex interrelated developmental pressures manifest in specific contexts of cities.

There was also a need for the deployment of sustainable infrastructure and place-making modalities with an eye on city-wide innovation along with the training of people needed to operationalise a new paradigm for sustainable and just urban development.

“However, the biggest challenge that African universities face is resources (financial, equipment and infrastructure), open access to datasets and academic publications, an enabling regulatory environment that can unleash talent and expertise in Africa, and leadership that can appreciate the scope and scale of the systemic transformation required to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” Pieterse said.

Pieterse recommended the establishment of a Pan-African Urban Sustainability Challenge Fund capitalised at US$1 billion to accelerate urban innovations anchored in universities, but executed through mission-driven partnerships with city-level stakeholders.

“The experimentation and learning that arise from such well-funded projects over five to 10 years can be aggregated as a knowledge commons for all African universities and inform a much more ambitious teaching and training effort to produce the hundreds of thousands of urban system integrators that we will need to design and run our cities differently over the next few decades,” he said.

Asian experts warn of corruption, interference

Asian development communication specialists and urban development economists consulted by University World News welcomed the UN-Habitat SURGe initiative, but warned that excessive political interference in local government structures and corruption in the real estate development sector could become a barrier.

“Good environmental governance should be based on facts, data analysis and the ‘right’ understanding,” said Dr Priyanut Dharmapiya, former executive director of the Sustainable Development and Sufficiency Economy Studies Center at the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) in Bangkok.

She said NIDA is currently working with local communities – both private sectors and residential communities – towards developing a smart city.

“Within that circle, we can start to explore together deliverable solutions in our cities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change. Academic institutions have major roles in creating the right understanding on climate changes and facilitating dialogue towards good environmental governance for the community,” said Dharmapiya, a development economist.

In an interview with University World News, grassroots community development and communication specialist Professor Biplab Loha Chowdhury of Visva-Bharati (University Institute of National Importance) at Shantiniketan in India’s West Bengal state, offered as a model his university’s role in developing a sustainable city in tune with the rich local culture.

He said when an urban community is developed, the “seed community culture” (origination culture) of the area needs to remain vibrant to provide a space for a “continuous shift of people”.

He said Visva-Bharati, since its establishment in 1921 by the famous Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, had played a role in developing the adjoining Bolpur city, transforming the area from a rural settlement into a vibrant city “without nullifying [the] freshness of rural expressions”.

“That Bolpur is a town with good tree cover is due to its adopting the annual tree planting praxis arising from Visva-Bharati’s annual ‘Briksha-Ropana’ event,” he said.

The town market is highly dependent on the inflow of money from university employees and development activities, he said.

“Visva-Bharati, instead of a mechanical contribution, has made the town grow organically with it. For students, research scholars and teachers of the university, the town is the centre for several studies in planning, architecture, culture, media and social problems. Many such studies helped plan for the town,” Loha Chowdury said.

Local government

On the role of local governments in SURGe, Professor Ma Theresa Rivera, a university research fellow in development communications based in Mindanao, Philippines, said local governments in her country tended to follow the policies set forth by the national government. Thus, every time presidents and governors change, the Local Government Units (LGU) have to re-orient policies to suit their political masters.

In order to support the SURGe initiatives, she said there would be a need for networks “of local governments, in partnership with non-governmental organisations, local academic communities, local environmental support groups and large, small and medium-sized companies”, the latter helping to fund local projects.

“However, resistance to this idea would also be coming from the local government officials themselves since the initiatives put forth involve multi-level government actions. Most local governments are understaffed and are handling several projects and activities across several services,” Rivera said. “LGU’s need to be given this as a national agenda before they can comply, as the system of bureaucracy is widely entrenched”.

Such entrenched national political controls are also a concern for Dr Sugath Senarath, mindful communication specialist and the head of the Department of Mass Communications at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka.

“[The] university can educate them [local councils] on good governance and especially good environmental governance. In this regard universities can organise short workshops at university premises and outside the campus (as well as) online meetings,” he told University World News.

“[But] in Sri Lanka these kinds of programmes need to be combined with political parties/leaders because the [local government] administration is highly politicised and these projects need to be implemented through their support.”

Senarath said his department is planning to offer weekend courses on political communication to political leaders. Thus, while universities could work closely with local governments in sharing their knowledge and experiences, there are some limitations in Sri Lanka.

A ‘highly politicised’ space

“Sri Lankan [governing] administrations are highly politicised and mostly people are divided by party politics. When this kind of project starts there is a risk of the project being politicised. [In addition], government universities are struggling with financial problems and they need financial assistance from outside sources. But that would risk projects being [hijacked] by donor agendas.

“SURGe’s aim to tie up with local governments to step up urban resilience is a step in the right direction [and] they must be supported with resources and expertise to find nature-based solutions,” said Jayasri Priyalal, regional director of UNI Global Union’s Asia and Pacific Regional Office based in Singapore.

However, he warned that the initiative would face resistance from vested commercial interests in Asian cities.

“There will be resistance from the powerful lobby groups who are into real estate business, who are putting up high-rise apartments to increase their returns on investments and assets,” warned Priyalal.

“They work hand in hand with corrupt systems and have access to concessionary finance to double up profits. They are all part of the problem and far away from finding sustainable solutions to transform cities into livable habitats.”

While the global unions could support the SURGe initiative, Priyalal said it was “high time” that the world moved out of the “Take, Make and Waste” linear economic model towards a sustainable circular economic model “based on returns on ethics, instead of returns on equity”.

To create such a model of urban resilience in Asia, as the above comments indicate, corrupt political and business models at local government level could be more of a hindrance to realising the SURGe goals than a lack of research capacity at local university level.