United Nations Environment Programme

Shaping tomorrow's cities

Pursuing an integrated approach in a mission for transformation
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The Global Platform for Sustainable Cities is expected to leverage $1.5 billion over 5 years for sustainability programmes in 30 cities across 11 developing countries.
Cities are eager to share good practice and learn about transit-oriented development and approaches to integrating low carbon and resilience into urban planning.

I recently visited one of China's eco-cities, and was impressed by its highly efficient buildings and use of renewable energy for street lighting. However, this newly built city is struggling to attract people, largely due to lack of accessibility to public transport and its distance from jobs. The city’s urban planner told me that the isolation of this “eco-enclave” could have been avoided if a more holistic approach had been taken early in the planning stage, including considering various aspects of land management, urban services, connectivity, and jobs.

Indeed we often tend to see urban infrastructure – buildings and roads – as engineering projects, and interventions tend to focus on single sectors. Addressing complex and interrelated urban sustainability issues instead requires a holistic, systems approach that brings together the physical, economic, and social dimensions essential for the functionality and liveability of cities.

The Global Platform for Sustainable Cities (GPSC) launched in March 2016 is intended to provide just that. Coordinated by the World Bank in partnership with other multilateral development banks, UN organizations, city networks, and think tanks, it is expected to leverage $1.5 billion over the next five years for urban sustainability programmes in about 30 cities across 11 developing countries: Brazil, CÔte D’Ivoire, China, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Senegal, South Africa, and Viet Nam. It is part of the Sustainable Cities Integrated Approach Pilot initiative supported by the Global Environment Facility.

The GPSC aims to provide access to cutting-edge tools and promote an integrated approach to sustainable urban planning and financing. Knowledge generated from the platform will not be limited only to the participating cities, but will reach many more through sharing data, experiences, ideas, and solutions to urban challenges, and by linking the knowledge to finance that will influence investment flows towards building cities’ long-term urban sustainability.

It is heartening to see these cities and countries fully embracing this new approach to their urban programmes. When 200 representatives from participating cities and organizations attended the launch of the GPSC in Singapore, they were eager to share good practice and learn about transit-oriented development and approaches to integrating low carbon and resilience into urban planning.
Johannesburg, for example, shared its flagship Corridors of Freedom project, a spatial plan consisting of transport arteries with a focus on mixed-use development that blends residential, commercial, cultural, institutional, and industrial uses. It provides pedestrian connections to transform settlement patterns that have, in the past, shunted the majority of residents to the city’s outskirts, away from economic opportunities and access to jobs and growth. For residents, the project is not only about mobility, but more importantly about a change from the social exclusion that has hampered the city's long-term growth.

Seven Chinese cities are part of the GPSC, and all have committed to transit-oriented development that promotes public transport to create compact, walkable, mixed-use communities. They are taking action to pursue a new urban form, characterized by a variety of land-use patterns, varying intensities of development, and vibrant neighborhoods. Responding to the challenges of rapid urbanization, the Chinese government has launched a new strategy to plan their cities – one that is ‘human-centered’ and promotes an integrated approach to creating a better urban environment.

Urban efficiency, inclusiveness, and productivity is surging because cities are adopting new sectoral policies and approaches, and because, more critically, they can bundle policies in a more integrated way and adapt governance practices to maximize potential. Integrated planning is a strategic process allowing cities to shape a vision, an overarching framework to integrate a multiplicity of actions and initiatives that will reinforce each other.

The GPSC has recently started developing an ‘Urban Sustainability Framework’ to support cities in adopting such integrated approaches. This guidance document helps cities lay out their strategic vision for sustainability, adopt and implement the new indicators for Goal 11 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, develop an action plan to improve their urban sustainability status over time, and prioritize investment to support their strategic objectives.
The long-term vision is to create a platform to store cutting-edge knowledge and advocate good practice of sustainable urban development, to provide a global convening space for dialogue, and to position cities as hubs of action and opportunities for sustainable urban investment.

The GPSC has embarked on a mission for transformation. By promoting urban systems as a whole, where every link works together in a well-coordinated way, we can shape cities of tomorrow that are socially inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author; they do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Bank, the Executive Directors of the World Bank, or the governments they represent.