United Nations Environment Programme

Redesigning cities

Urban resilience and resource efficiency at the heart of UN Environment’s work
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Cities are innovation hubs. They provide the setting, the stimulus and the substance for people to come together and exchange and develop new ideas. Cultural diversity, universities, informal meeting places and key pressure points spur the investigation into new approaches. Access to capital and shorter decision-making processes help the best of them become a reality. In this way, cities have spawned so many new trends.

UN Environment is promoting a neighbourhood approach to harness the innovation capacity of cities. This level of intervention is close to people while still benefiting from economies of scale. It supports decision-makers in their task of responding to short- and long-term risks and challenges brought about by climate change and resource scarcity.

Resilience and resource efficiency are two agendas at the heart of UN Environment’s work.

Resilience, as defined for Habitat III by the ‘Urban Ecology and Resilience’ policy unit led by UN Environment and the Rockefeller Foundation, involves investments for climate adaptation (such as early warning and preparedness and nature-based solutions to reduce risk of extreme weather events or natural disasters) and also for human development (such as participatory processes). Resilience allows a city or a neighbourhood to prepare for and respond to shocks such as flooding or typhoons, and stresses such as sea-level rise, and to reduce the environmental, social and economic risks they pose. Resilience allows cities to condition themselves to meet challenges as diverse as poverty or migration, to absorb the impacts of shocks and stresses to effectively ‘bounce back’, but also to transform themselves and ‘bounce forward’. Resource efficiency enables cities to disconnect economic growth and development from resource use, by changing the ways in which we consume and produce goods and services. Resource efficiency is an essential element to building urban resilience. Resource efficiency, in turn, can be accomplished more effectively when it is built in the context of a resilient system.

At neighbourhood level, realizing resilience and resource efficiency entails connecting infrastructure and encouraging sustainable lifestyles. Housing, mobility, food and leisure are the key domains of such sustainable lifestyles, where behavioural changes are critical to reduce impacts, whether on climate, resources or health. For example, the THINK.EAT.SAVE campaign of UN Environment, FAO and partners spotlights the enormous impacts that food waste has on resources such as land and water, and on our climate; and it gives ideas on how to consume differently to avoid this wastage. Based on a study of key factors and decision points of an individual’s day-to-day decisions, a lifestyles campaign is under preparation.

Connecting infrastructure at the neighbourhood level can take the form of single technologies or integrated systems. Solutions differ whether neighbourhoods are being built, or whether existing infrastructure is to be retrofitted. Also, neighbourhoods come in different shapes and sizes, and are characterised by their natural, geographical and cultural features. Factoring these parameters into planning, design and how we build and rebuild our neighbourhoods determines liveability and sustainability.

The International Resource Panel, in its first report on city-level decoupling, distinguishes between four types of green urban networks: integrated eco-urbanism, such as eco-neighbourhoods where the design includes integrated infrastructure networks to achieve high sustainability goals; urban networked technologies, where new construction projects focus on the development of a particular technology or infrastructure; systemic urban transitions, where existing infrastructures and buildings are retrofitted using an integrated network approach; and urban networked infrastructures, where infrastructure systems are retrofitted focusing on a particular technology.

UN Environment’s work on district energy systems, featured elsewhere in this issue, is an example of connecting buildings to cover their heating and cooling needs. At the same time, it allows more renewable energy into the system, thereby improving air quality by reducing use of oil, coal and woodstoves, while also increasing resilience by focusing on locally produced energy in a decentralized system. New ownership models appear around shared renewable energy infrastructure, such as cooperative models in a given neighbourhood.
UN Environment, a partner in the Urban Health Initiative of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, and hosting the CCAC Secretariat, is supporting the use of electric motorbikes, thereby addressing with one measure several objectives: improving air pollution with related health benefits, contributing to climate mitigation, and improving mobility. Another example of an integrated solution and resilience-building at the neighbourhood scale is the integration of transport, buildings and energy systems by designing the re-charging infrastructure so as to use the storage capacity of vehicle batteries to allow higher shares of intermittent locally produced renewable energy into the system.

Green space in a neighbourhood is critical, with trees providing natural shade and thereby reducing cooling needs and providing air purification services. This makes neighbourhoods more liveable thanks to recreational space as well as opportunities for urban gardening which yield locally produced food supplies. UN Environment’s work on urban ecosystem-based adaptation in Asia and Latin America is another example of improving resilience and quality of life by supporting urban reforestation, urban agriculture and the restoration of wetlands as a flood and drought control mechanism.

To allow the design of integrated solutions, material and resource flows need to be better recognized by cities, analysed, and incorporated into planning and decision-making. UN Environment, through its Global Initiative on Resource Efficient Cities (GI-REC), helps cities understand their ‘urban metabolism’ based on the environmental, social and economic impact of resources that flow through cities. These include water, waste, energy, food and other materials. Through a network of global partners in the platform, GI-REC facilitates peer-to-peer learning to share lessons learnt and good practices, and is developing a toolkit for cities to increase their capacity to understand and manage local resources.