Urban October presents an opportune moment to focus on the post-pandemic future of our cities and highlight the necessity for accelerating progress towards carbon-neutral cities. Today, half of humanity lives in cities and this number is set to grow in the coming years, exponentially so in developing countries. It’s no wonder that cities have an outsize carbon footprint, responsible for 80% of global CO2 emissions, and at the frontlines of all climate crises.
According to the recent IPCC report, urban climate adaption is essential to building climate resilience and achieving sustainable development goals. Recognizing the centrality of cities as key climate actors, the United Nations has long espoused a strong emphasis on building “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities”, with UN-Habitat at the helm directing various projects to build capacities in urban environmental planning and management.
As cities grow, and we become an increasingly urban species, there is an integral need to balance between the human and natural systems at play. It’s tough to evaluate the impact of urbanization on communities, climate, and the environment, and identify future needs and focus areas without a standard assessment framework. The Urban Sustainability Assessment Framework (USAF) developed under the Sustainable Cities Integrated Approach Pilot (SCIAP) project, implemented by UNIDO and UN-Habitat, is an important first step in this direction. Piloted in the cities of Bhopal, Guntur, Jaipur, Mysuru, and Vijayawada, urban diagnostics were conducted through application of USAF, covering sectors such as public space and safety, housing and property, water, sanitation, solid waste management, transportation, social facilities, and services, environment and ecology, clean energy, disaster risk management, governance and data management and finance and economy. Leveraging the complex network of interdependent systems and multilevel governance at play in these cities, the SCIAP aims to develop engagement and long-term ownership in urban planning.
The city diagnostic reports produced under the project have proved to be instrumental in informing policymakers, partners, and communities of the sustainable city strategies and related actions and interventions. A glance at the USAF fact sheet for the pilot cities serves as a reminder of the varying needs and issues to be addressed. For instance, take Jaipur, a UNESCO world heritage site built in 1727 and one of India’s first planned cities, and Guntur, a city in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Situated in the northern and southern regions respectively, both Jaipur and Guntur are growing at a rapid pace, and with it, a mounting list of urban and environmental issues that need immediate attention and institutional remediation.
In Guntur, a formerly agricultural region, urban sprawl has led to a significant loss in cultivated land, and city dwellers suffer from lack of open spaces and inadequate water supply. Similar issues have been in Jaipur too. Besides, master plans or zonal development plans of both cities have not been updated in a decade, and they do not have GHG monitoring systems. However, there is a large divergence in other issues such as, low level of sewage connectivity to access to healthcare facilities in close vicinity within these cities; 21% of properties in Guntur are connected to a sewage network compared to 86% of properties in Jaipur, and on the other hand, while 91% of population in Guntur have access to healthcare services within 800 m, there are several under-serviced pockets in Jaipur. Solid waste management is a severe problem in Guntur where more than 4 lakh metric tons of waste has accumulated in the city’s dumping site over the years. For Jaipur, improvement of urban mobility is the highest mid to long term priority of the government. Hence, such a quick comparison makes apparent the gargantuan differences in issues faced within urban centres, and the pervasiveness of threats to the quality of life and nature across the board.
Cities must be at the nexus of climate change interventions. For this to happen, there needs to be an immediate decoupling of economic growth from environmental degradation, and mobilization of resources towards planning, investment, and development of technologies for sustainable cities. Sustainable cities can serve as hubs of innovation for climate action, creating green-value chains and new employment opportunities, all the while offering a greater quality of life and a quicker pathway to the realization of the SDGs. As we celebrate this Urban October, amidst the recovery from pandemic-issued shutdowns, there is a generational opportunity to put climate action, clean energy, and sustainable development at the heart of cities’ strategies and policies.