Cities have been crucial for lifting people out of poverty and enabling them to access services, yet it is widely understood that the current urban development model is not sustainable. Some of the main challenges include: finding effective solutions to urban governance; the continuous growth of slums (despite the reduction of slum inhabitants as a proportion of the overall urban population, the number of persons living in slums is growing); providing urban services as urban density continues to decline; the vulnerability of cities to climate hazards and the contribution of cities to accelerating climate change through consumption and emissions; inequality and exclusion; and the upsurge of involuntary migration, as well as rising insecurity.
One of the key emerging issues that cities must contend with is climate change. Described as one of the greatest challenges of our time, the adverse impacts of climate change can undermine the ability of all countries to achieve sustainable development.
Climate change has become a pressing issue on the international development agenda simultaneously with urbanization, offering many opportunities for climate change adaptation, mitigation and disaster risk reduction. Between 1950 and 2005, the level of urbanization increased from 29 per cent to 49 per cent, while global carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning increased by almost 500 per cent.
While climate change is a profound global issue, it is also a local issue, meaning urban areas have a crucial role in the climate change arena. Urban areas concentrate economic activities, households, industries and infrastructure which are hotspots for energy consumption as well as key sources of greenhouse gases.
As populations, production and consumption are largely concentrated in cities, it is not surprising that most energy is consumed, and most emissions are released in cities. Indeed, with more than 50 per cent of the world’s population, cities account for between 60-80 per cent of energy consumption and generate as much as 70 per cent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, primarily through the consumption of fossil fuels for energy supply and transportation. This poses the question: what type of human settlement can be most efficient from an energy consumption perspective? It is clear that a shift needs to take place regarding consumption and production patterns.
Currently, emission reduction measures in cities mainly focus on the transport and building sectors. Many local authorities, however, do not have the mandate for transport which usually spans several municipalities. Working together on emission reductions in this sector can enhance the vertical integration of levels of government.
Measures at city level introducing new building codes related to thermal insulation or green roofs could be even more effective if they were enforced at national level instead of only at the local level. The same applies to local measures on waste reduction or recycling obligations. At the same time, there are measures emanating from the supra-national level (the European Commission in the case of Europe) that are only partially implemented by the national or local level. This is, for example, the case with urban air quality measures.
An instrument for peace
While technical and political cooperation of neighbouring cities has probably existed for centuries, the first thematic cities network was founded in 1913. The formal twinning of cities emerged in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. It was conceived with the political objective to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation. By organizing cultural and social activities, sometimes supported by economic exchanges, twinned municipalities would keep the memory of their historical relationship alive, foster citizens’ understanding and develop a dense network of personal connections that would reduce the risk of future conflict.
The twinning approach is meant to establish a voluntary long-term bilateral political relationship between two partners. It does not require the intervention of a third party and does generally not define – or if so, only in a vague manner – the areas in which the partners would cooperate.
An opportunity for innovation and business development
Developing business relationships among cities is a simple way to contribute to economic prosperity. Cooperation on business development is an approach that is based on a shared understanding of each partner’s economic strengths, weaknesses and how each partner can complement the other.
In the spirit of the European concept of “Smart Specialization”, regions and cities should prioritise complementarity between economic activities and find better ways to combine their strengths to create new industrial capabilities in areas with high growth potential. By focusing economic development efforts and investments on each region’s or city’s relative strengths, and by building on complementarities rather than competition, the strategy can be expected to generate a higher level of prosperity for both partners.
Building capacities for sustainable urban development
Besides the long-term promotion of peace and the development of business opportunities, city-to-city cooperation was also identified as a means to increase the capacity of local authorities to address challenges associated with sustainable urban development.
Within the United Nations system, technical exchanges in the urban sector have been promoted through several global programmes. These programmes have offered important entry points to decentralized cooperation partners.
In Europe, the activation of technical exchanges and policy dialogue among cities has been promoted by URBACT since 2002.
Cities and climate action
Cities, towns and other urban areas have a crucial role to play in mitigating climate change, as they consume three quarters of the energy produced in the European Union and are responsible for a similar share of CO2 emissions. Local authorities are also able to change citizens' behaviour and address climate and energy questions in a comprehensive manner, notably by conciliating public and private interests and by integrating sustainable energy issues into overall local development goals. Furthermore, it is recognized that city action can help to advance national policy on climate action.
“New York City is uniquely positioned to help achieve the SDGs by amplifying, sharing, and learning from policies and best practices from cities and states. In presenting this report on our local efforts through the common language of the SDGs, we aim to encourage cities and other stakeholders to join us in a conversation not only about measuring progress towards the 2030 Agenda, but most importantly the policies and other strategies to get there.” New York City, the first city to publish a Voluntary Local Review, did so to reconcile the local development strategy “OneNYC” and the SDGs. The local government identified five priority goals: SDG 6 “Water and Sanitation”, SDG 7 “Affordable and Clean Energy”, SDG 11 “Sustainable Cities”, SDG 12 “Responsible Consumption and Production” and SDG 15 “Life on Land”.
The IUC programme has three components:
a. City-to-city cooperation on sustainable urban development
In addition to cities from EU Member States, cities from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, India, Japan, Mexico, Peru and the United States were eligible to join the programme. European Union cities were paired with cities from outside of Europe for a period of at least 18 months. In this time, each pairing was tasked with developing a local action plan that outlined a pilot project to jointly work on.
b. Sub-national action under the Global Covenant of Mayors initiative
Cities and other sub-national bodies were encouraged to join the Global Covenant of Mayors. Under this initiative, local governments voluntarily commit to reduce emissions and pursue ambitious energy targets. Regional covenants in Asia (India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam) and the Americas (Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the United States) are supported through the IUC programme.
c. Inter-regional cooperation on innovation for local and regional development
The third component pairs regions from Latin America and the Caribbean with European regions to further innovation and competitiveness. The programme aims to stimulate the development of regional strategies based on the European experience of Smart Specialization, to involve the private sector through innovative SMEs, and to promote international value chains. Twenty regions were selected in cooperation with national authorities in six countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru – and matched with regional European Union counterparts.
A fourth IUC component has become operational in 2020, focusing on supporting the development and operationalisation of the Partnership for Smart and Sustainable Urbanisation for India and the EU. The Partnership will promote knowledge sharing and exchange of experience on urban policy issues, in line with the New Urban Agenda.
The German city of Mannheim (300,000 inhabitants) and the Chinese city of Chongqing (30 million inhabitants) agreed to work together on SDG 8 “Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all” and SDG 9 “Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation”.
Through their collaboration in the IUC programme, the cities decided to establish a direct freight rail connection that responds to the demand of the private sector. Such a connection strengthens Mannheim’s profile as a logistics hub for freight transport in Europe.
The Chongqing-Mannheim shuttle was opened in October 2018. A freight train departs roughly every week and takes about 18 days to cover the 11,200 km distance between the two cities, going via Malaszewicze (Poland), Brest (Belorussia), Dostyk (Kazakhstan) and Alashankou (China).
The collaboration was possible thanks to a series of reciprocal visits and the support of the Chinese national government through the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).
Both cities agreed on the following joint actions:
1. Establishing a direct railway connection between Mannheim and Chongqing to reduce time and costs for freight transport between the two cities (contributing to the Belt and Road Initiative, which is supported by the European Union and China).
2. The establishment of a Chongqing representative office in Mannheim and a Mannheim representative office in Chongqing.
3. The organisation of urban development conferences in Chongqing and Mannheim to bring together policymakers and businesses for in-depth discussion on topics such as the impact of advanced manufacturing for cities and urban planning, industry 4.0, mobility, etc.
The forward-looking city cooperation received wide-spread media attention and international recognition through an event at the 9th World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) in 2018.
For Mannheim and Chongqing, the IUC programme was pivotal in enabling efficient collaboration between the cities. The swift progress and results were possible thanks to the high-level support of both the European Commission and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) of the People’s Republic of China, thereby involving the local, national and supra-national levels.
The cities of Parma (Italy) and Fredericton (Canada) worked together on gender equality in local government leadership.
The pairing decided to create a methodology to assess and identify obstacles to the development of women’s careers in public administrations. This was done with the help of the University of Parma.
The methodology being developed will examine the impact of legislative intervention on barriers to female participation in local government leadership positions. It is foreseen that this methodology will not only be transferable to other cities but will be applicable to other marginalized segments of the population.
The first step in defining the methodology has been to collect feedback from both cities on the experiences of women working in the public administrations. The second stage will involve the collection of data sets on agreed criteria that will allow for comparability between the two city contexts. The final stage will see an assessment to determine barriers to the professional progression of women, with an analysis of the similarities and differences between the two cities.
Through the IUC programme, the pairing is contributing to SDG 5 “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. Parma and Fredericton were the only pairing that focused on gender equality.
Barcelona (Spain) and New York City (USA) jointly explored measures to make housing in their cities more affordable for the local population.
Each city realised that the cost of housing had reached untenable levels and was keen to exchange information on existing measures and potential strategies to address this, both from a political and technical perspective. The two cities witnessed a growth in the homeless population as a result of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, primarily due to a rise in foreclosures and evictions. These issues encouraged the cities to exchange experiences around tenant protections and ways to serve extremely low-income households.
As part of their work, Barcelona and New York City explored the use of public-community partnerships, as well as incorporating the use of new technologies in housing construction and management.
The cities jointly launched the Affordable Housing Challenge in November 2018, with a winning proposal identified in May 2019. The proposal focused on the use of vacant or under-utilized urban spaces to promote new housing. It is now being turned into two pilot projects, one in each city.
New York City has received $1.65 million in grant support from a U.S.-based non-profit organization, Enterprise Community Partners, to foster a city network of Community Land Trusts (CLT), a system whereby a non-profit, community-based organisation owns land and maintains control or oversight of homes located on that land.
Barcelona is looking at the legal implications of implementing the CLT model in the city and how it could complement its existing Cooperative Housing programme, also based on the separation between the ownership of the land (currently held by the city) and the ownership of the building (currently held in lease by housing cooperatives).
Barcelona and New York have found that each city has different levels of autonomy in tackling housing - for example, New York City can issue bonds and use other financing tools to facilitate affordable housing that Barcelona cannot (at least as of now). New York City also has instruments for regulating rental prices for certain types of affordable housing stock, whereas only the national government has the authority to regulate rental prices in Spain. Despite these differences, both cities are implementing similar strategies, such as the introduction of mandatory inclusionary housing, with a certain percentage of units to be designated as affordable in all new developments.
Through their collaboration, the city pairing contributes to SDG 11, particularly target 11.1 By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums. Furthermore, the cities contribute to SDG 10 “Reduce inequality within and among countries” and to its target 10.2 By 2030, empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.
The Iskandar Region of Malaysia is located in the State of Johor and made up of five local authorities, with a total of around 2 million inhabitants.
Iskandar Malaysia faces several climate challenges, such as the emission of greenhouse gases from industry and commerce, as well as flash floods, water supply issues and pollution. The frequency and intensity of the floods are expected to increase.
To advance on these challenges, the Region joined the Global Covenant of Mayors in November 2017.
In 2012, the Regional Development Authority issued the Low Carbon Society Blueprint 2025. The Blueprint has served as a guide for policymakers, businesses, NGOs and others on going green.
It is complemented by Low Carbon Society Action Plans specifically crafted for each of the Region’s local authorities.
An important element of the strategy is public awareness. Over 400 schools were reached by the Iskandar Malaysia Eco Life Challenge which looked at energy consumption by households.
The region’s ambition is to achieve a 58 per cent carbon reduction of greenhouse gas emission intensity in 2025 compared to 2010.
Iskandar’s engagement has already yielded results, such as a 13 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions intensity during the period of 2010-2017.
To further action on climate challenges, the Region realized it needed to secure government support, buy-in from local stakeholders, cooperation with the wider global community, and high-quality data.
The Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) spearheads climate planning. Plans can only translate to concrete results if they have political support from the State of Johor and from the region’s five local authorities. This required the IRDA to meet regularly with the State. Through this process, the IRDA gained governmental recognition and their Blueprint was embedded in State of Johor policies across sectors. The State has also established a Johor Low Carbon Council as a platform and decision-making body to discuss, plan and monitor the Low Carbon Society programme at the state level.
The IRDA worked closely with local-level agencies and private sector organisations in the implementation of Action Plans.
Given the comprehensive nature of the programme, its development, implementation and monitoring have all necessitated securing outside financial support. Iskandar turned to the international community to tackle this challenge. The Region secured funding for a five-year project through the Science and Technology Research Partnership for Sustainable Development, funded by two Japanese agencies, which financed research used to develop the Blueprint and Action Plans.
To fill data gaps, IRDA is setting up a new, central body responsible for climate data gathering, management, monitoring and analysis, known as Iskandar Malaysia Urban Observatory.
The IRDA understood that the goals and planning laid out in the Low Carbon Society Blueprint must be paired with climate monitoring and reporting to ensure effectiveness. Climate planning has thereby led the Region to now release regular, comprehensive greenhouse gas inventories, which will be supported by the Global Covenant of Mayor’s reporting framework.
The Spanish region of Cantabria and the Mexican region of Chihuahua started working together through the IUC programme in November 2017. The regions had a good basis for collaboration as they share not only the same language, but similar levels of devolution, as regions in Spain and Mexico both have the mandate to implement public policies.
The pairing focused their collaboration on a diverse array of topics, including biomedicine, agriculture, and smart tourism. Tourism is a major topic for both regions and the pairing has elaborated a plan for digital tourism, drawing on Cantabria’s experience with smart tourism. The regions are looking for funding from the Inter-American Development Bank, as well as from national level and European Union sources, to help implement their prospective measures.
Chihuahua showed great interest in learning from Cantabria’s experience of developing an innovation strategy, with the long-term aim of developing a similar innovation strategy for their region. Cantabria agreed to share the methodology they used to help Chihuahua create a local version.
Cantabrian colleagues were impressed by the depth and breadth of initiatives rolled out by Chihuahua related to working with entrepreneurs and the range of public policies the region has implemented despite limited resources.
Through their collaboration, both regions contribute to SDG 9 “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation”.
Integrating Human Settlements in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)
Implementation of the outcomes of the United Nations Conferences on Human Settlements and on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development and strengthening of the United Nations Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat)
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