26 Apr 2018 Story Resource efficiency

Innovation and imagination: The keys to a sustainable urban future

What makes a city more resilient? In a world faced with the twin challenges of increasing urbanization and climate change, it is paramount to re-think cities so that they are able to face the pressures these changes will bring.

According to the latest report from the International Resources Panel, the future of our cities will depend on their level of resource efficiency and how they are planned, connected and governed.

The Panel’s full report, The weight of cities: Resource requirements of future urbanization, will be released today at the 9th Global Forum on Urban Resilience and Adaptation in Bonn, Germany. (A summary for policy-makers was released in February.)

The report calls for substantial changes in urban form, governance and design, each of which require re-thinking of how cities are created and developed, and in some cases replacing social, economic and political practices.

“We must rethink the way in which we urbanize,” said Panel member Maarten Hajer, co-lead author of the report and Distinguished Professor of Urban Futures at Utrecht University, Netherlands. “City networks constitute a great opportunity for city governments to collaborate and learn from each other. Our report shows we can achieve an urban form that is both socially and ecologically sustainable. Yet the challenge is massive.”

According to ICLEI – the global network of more than 1,500 cities, towns and regions committed to building a sustainable future and the organizers of the Global Forum – a resilient city is defined as one that “is prepared to absorb and recover from any shock or stress while maintaining its essential functions, structures, and identity as well as adapting and thriving in the face of continual change.” Building resilience, the network says, requires identifying and assessing risks, reducing vulnerability, preparing for emergencies, and increasing cities’ capacities to adapt to change.

The Panel’s report supports resilience by encouraging cities to make optimum use of their resources, so as to avoid the risks associated with putting unsustainable burdens on agriculture, energy, industry and transport.

The report recommends:

  • Monitoring the flow of natural resources entering and leaving a city; doing so can help cities develop strategies to manage their resources more efficiently.
  • Establishing a new model for city governance and politics that supports imaginative business propositions and experimentation.
  • Planning a city to have:
    • Compact growth, to economize on the asphalt, concrete, electricity and water consumed in urban sprawl.

    • Better connections through efficient, affordable public transport.

    • Liveable neighbourhoods where design and small city-block size encourage people to walk or cycle.

  • Designing in resource-efficient components such as car sharing, charging point networks for electric vehicles, efficient energy, water and waste systems, smart grids, cycle paths, energy-efficient building, and new heating, cooling and lighting technologies.
  • Developing infrastructure to take advantage of cross-sector efficiency, such as using waste heat from industry in district energy systems, and industrial waste in construction, such as in fly-ash bricks.

In the next 30 years, 2.4 billion people are likely to move to urban areas, bringing the proportion of the global population living in cities by 2050 to 66 per cent.

The annual amount of natural resources used by urban areas is expected to grow from 40 billion tonnes in 2010 to 90 billion tonnes in 2050, an increase of 125 per cent, if changes are not made to how cities are built and designed.

The report calls for a new strategy to meet the needs of 21st century urbanization, and includes recommendations that could result in low-carbon, resource-efficient, socially just cities in which people can live healthy lives.

Find out how UN Environment supports sustainable cities.