25 Feb 2020 Story Cities and lifestyles

The new neighborhood: creating new community around sustainability and social well-being

Photo by Eco District_USA = © EcoDistricts

At the 2020 tenth World Urban Forum, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) presented its new guidelines for integrated approaches for sustainable neighborhoods.

Cities today are responsible for some 75 per cent of global energy and resource use, and some 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Rapid urbanization and unsustainable practices in all sectors from transport to buildings and construction to waste management to energy will amplify the environmental impacts of cities. Most of urban growth today is unplanned, fragmented and incoherent, and those cities that will see the biggest increase in urban population, lack urban and spatial planning capacity. This leaves gaps in environmental protection and in access to important services for many citizens.

Luckily, urban communities are ready for a new style of living that is kinder to residents and the planet alike and are exploring ways to do so. The International Resource Panel report ‘Weight of Cities’ found that cities can achieve some 30 to 55 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and resource use by using better spatial planning and urban design, higher sector and cross-sector efficiency and circularity, and more sustainable lifestyles and consumption patterns.

“Encouraged by the powerful numbers of the Weight of Cities report, we decided to develop guidance on integrated approaches to harness the climate and resource potential and related benefits for health and well-being. Targeted at urban practitioners, we concentrated at the neighborhood level to take out some of the complexities that come with integrated approaches,” said UNEP’s Martina Otto.

In fact, the neighborhood level is the right scale for achieving a coherent and sustainable urban piece in a reasonable time. Neighborhoods are big enough to aggregate the interrelated components present in an urban community, yet small enough to achieve results in a foreseeable time period. The size of neighborhoods allows more rapid action than city-wide policy, while still having a significant impact.

Designing zero carbon neighborhoods to meet the Paris Agreement targets requires an understanding of how design decisions on location, movement, connections, orientation and biodiversity make a place more or less sustainable. The neighborhood layout must be designed to influence positively the microclimate, to minimize energy use and facilitate local sourcing and the use of renewable energy. Factors such as water use and waste management should also be considered in integrated planning.

A handful of “eco-cities” around the globe are developing demonstration green neighborhoods to showcase the latest in green technologies and practices. Canada, China, Korea, Scandinavia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States all have transformative projects that integrate a variety of energy, water, transportation and waste management strategies on a neighborhood scale.

In addition to these projects, strategies that address existing neighborhoods are needed. In Portland, Oregon, the EcoDistricts Initiative is developing five pilot eco-districts to build on the city’s success in the green building sector, and to transfer sustainability benefits to the neighborhood scale. These efforts, along with others around the globe, such as in Hammerby (Sweden) and Medellín (Colombia), highlight the need for a new set of partnerships and enabling tools to address sustainability at this larger level. To get to the scale required, we need to get them out of their isolation and take them from best practice examples to mainstream and build a network of interconnected sustainable neighborhoods.  

“The scale of the problems is such that we need transformation—and this tool is a way to get there,” said Otto.

The guidelines are intended to initiate and follow a process that is engaging and inclusive, not to be followed to the dot, but to be adapted to local context. They can be applied in part or as a whole. Strategies comprise ways to create strategic densities, nature-based solutions and bioclimatic principles for buildings and construction, decarbonizing energy, circularity, and many more.

People are at the heart of the neighborhoods—and at the heart of this process too: neighborhoods allow for community engagement and build upon the sense of community prevailing in these communities.