Building Sustainability, Climate Change Resilience of Cities

Building Sustainability, Climate Change Resilience of Cities

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RELIEF WEB 05/02/18
UN Economic and Social Council

Economic and Social Council
2018 Session, 22nd & 23rd Meetings

The Economic and Social Council today heard from urban development and sustainability experts including mayors and other public officials focused on building resilient cities, as it continued its 2018 integration segment.

Yousef al-Shawaarbeh, Mayor of Amman, Jordan, emphasized the importance of empowering leaders with innovative ideas, especially in cities facing unique challenges. For decades, Amman had welcomed an influx of refugees and migrants, time and again proving its resilience. He described the city’s current focus on revamping its public transportation and creating jobs for all its inhabitants.

Medellín Mayor Federico Gutiérrez said that, when people talked about his Colombia city, they thought of its violent past. He described how investments were being directed into neighbourhoods with the lowest human development indicators. His city had decided to promote electric cars and buses, to create more green spaces and to shift towards a knowledge-based economy.

Daniel Zarrilli, Chief Resilience Officer for the City of New York, said that its “resilience journey” began with Hurricane Sandy, its worst-ever natural disaster. Sea levels were liable to rise by 1.83 metres in the next 100 years. New York’s efforts to tackle climate change included divesting its pension funds of fossil-fuel-related investments and filing lawsuits against five companies deemed most responsible for climate change.

Nancy Odendaal, Associate Professor at the UCT School of Architecture in Cape Town, South Africa, said that making “smart cities” work required focusing on the resilience struggles people faced every day. “Moments of innovation need to take place,” she added, welcoming a renewed global interest in urban space.

Christopher Williams, Director at United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), underscoring that many cities operated on decades-old infrastructure, urged leaders of industry, community organizers and professionals to together develop urban strategies. “We cannot have a one-size‑fits‑all approach,” he said.

In the afternoon, the Council held a discussion on national strategies for resilience, during which speakers shared experiences and best practices. Many said resilience meant different things in different places.

Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs of the Netherlands, said that, for Sint Maarten, resilience meant building better in the aftermath of a hurricane, while in the Netherlands proper it meant building sustainably around water. He emphasized the need to address the “how” of resiliency and to move from reacting to climate events to building for the future.

Romauld Sotario Ferreira, Minister for the Environment and Housing of the Bahamas, said his country was miniscule in terms of contributing to greenhouse gases, yet it was sustaining more frequent and more intense hurricanes. Emphasizing the impact of natural hazards on those living in poverty, as well as children and the elderly, he said the Bahamas’ own resources were, in 2017, insufficient to handle the level of devastation. A major challenge had been a lack of coordination and integration across Government departments, he said, noting also reluctance among older citizens to embrace new technology.

The Council also watched two short videos today titled Superblocks: How Barcelona Is Taking City Streets Back from Cars and Smart Climate Change Adaptation in Practice.

The Economic and Social Council will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 3 May, to continue its integration segment.

Session III: Balancing Infrastructure Development and Sustainability

The interactive session on balancing infrastructure development and sustainability featured two panel discussions. The first was moderated by Michael Shank, Communications Director at Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. It featured the following speakers: Yousef al-Shawaarbeh, Mayor of Amman, Jordan; Christopher Williams, Director, United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat); and Nancy Odendaal, Associate Professor, UCT School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics, Cape Town, South Africa. Also speaking as discussants were Ion Jinga (Romania), Chair of the Commission on Population and Development at its fifty-first session and Nikulas Hannigan (Iceland), Chair of the Commission for Social Development at its fifty-sixth session.

Mr. AL-SHAWAARBEH said that political decisions regarding urban spaces must focus on preventive solutions. Emphasizing the importance of empowering leaders with innovative ideas, he noted Amman’s myriad challenges and its proven resilience. For decades, his city had welcomed an influx of refugees and migrants. The most pressing challenges facing it today stemmed from migration. Migrants and refugees need employment and jobs. At the national level, Jordan faced real economic challenges, imposing social pressures around the country. His city was searching for solutions, both locally and with international partners. For instance, Amman’s Government was developing its public transportation system to meet the needs of its people and create job opportunities for rural communities and women.

Mr. WILLIAMS said that shocks cities experienced today were greater than ever before. Many cities were still dealing with decades-old infrastructure. They lacked the resources required to upgrade. Other cities that had upgraded lacked the tools to measure their progress. It was important to look at resilience in different ways, he said, adding that captains of industry, community organizers and various professionals must work together to develop the urban strategy. “We cannot have a one-size‑fits‑all approach,” he stressed, emphasizing the need for a multi-context understanding of resilience and sustainability solutions.

Ms. ODENDAAL said technology must speak to livelihoods and the day-to-day innovations people use for survival. “The focus must be on harnessing the everyday into technological innovation,” she said. Making “smart cities” work required focusing on the resilience struggles people faced daily. That included climate change, mass migration, infrastructure failures and water scarcity. The close relationship between technology and data and livelihood strategies must be translated into policy, she said. She emphasized that “moments of innovation need to take place” and that “space matters”, as she welcomed a renewed interest in urban space and its relational nature.

Mr. JINGA, underscoring the role of large private and public-sector partnerships in Romania, emphasized the critical contribution of small scale service providers. Improving access to sanitation, securing housing for the urban poor, relocating out of environmentally fragile or threatened areas, enhancing environmental regulations and improving solid waste management systems were critical focuses. More than half the world’s population lived in cities, he said, stressing the need to invest in people especially youth and women. He noted his Government’s work in reducing poverty and ensuring access to health and education. Such economic growth and social investments had caused an increase in the number of people commuting into cities for work.

Mr. HANNIGAN said that the Commission on Social Development produced broad policy objections, reflecting the political will required to implement the solutions which were already available and accessible. Inequality was a good critical lens to glance through on the issue of infrastructure in cities. Emphasizing the importance of reliable and resilient infrastructure to develop job creation, he said the focus must also be on affordability by all, including the poor and unemployed. Street homelessness was inevitably going to be a growing problem and was related to inadequate infrastructure, he added.

In the ensuing discussion, sharing his experience with influencing political will and engaging in coproduction, Mr. AL-SHAWAARBEH said participation in decision-making at the grass‑roots level was essential for people as those policies directly affected them. Amman continued to integrate young people in decision-making mechanisms and in addressing challenges facing the city.

Mr. WILLIAMS said that coproduction was very important, calling it a “social contract to bring about innovation and change”. The reforms of the development system at the United Nations were profound. Shifting the way it worked was related to the work done in cities. He called the complexity of homelessness shocking. Most did not live in homeless shelters, but rather on the street. The issue must be dealt with just like the migrant and refugee crises.

Ms. ODENDAAL noted the tension between the corporate idea of “smart” and the more finely grained reading of technology. The latter saw technology as the enabler of livelihoods. She also underscored the example of the mobile phone, noting its prolific use among various economic and social groups.

The Council continued its session with another panel. The second discussion featured the following speakers: Federico Gutiérrez, Mayor of Medellín, Colombia; Daniel Zarrilli, Chief Resilience Officer, City of New York; Ursula Wynhoven, Representative at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Liaison Office in New York; and Daniel Ponce Gandarillas, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, CityHeroes Inc. Participating as discussant was Dorine Burmanje, Chair of the Executive Board of the Land Registry and Mapping Agency (Kadaster) of the Netherlands and Co-Chair of the Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management.

Mr. Gutiérrez said that, when people talked about his city, they thought of its violent past when, in 1991, it had the world’s highest murder rate. However, “today’s Medellín is not like the Netflix Medellín”, having become a safer place with innovative approaches to social challenges. He described how the Sustainable Development Goals had been incorporated into city planning, with investments being directed into neighbourhoods with the lowest human development indicators. Efforts were also being made in such areas as public transport, art and culture, education, health and sports infrastructure. The city had decided to promote electric cars and buses, to create more green spaces — including a park in memory of the victims of drug trafficking and violence — and to shift towards a knowledge-based economy. Speaking more broadly, he said 80 per cent of Latin Americans now lived in urban areas, a proportion that was set to rise, “so we have to be prepared”. Concluding, he said Medellín was a city that was acknowledging its past while at the same time looking forward, with a commitment to the Goals.

Mr. ZARRILLI said New York City’s “resilience journey” began with Hurricane Sandy, its worst-ever natural disaster, which opened its eyes to the threat posed by climate change. The “One NYC” strategy, released in 2015, was New York City’s first resilience strategy and a local manifestation of the Goals. With a population expected to reach 9 million by 2040, the city was managing growth through more affordable housing, alternative modes of transportation and a commitment to growing the economy and creating jobs while lifting more New Yorkers out of poverty. Returning to climate change, he said sea levels, having risen 30.48 centimetres in the past 100 years, were liable to rise by six feet in the next 100 years, while heat killed more New Yorkers than any other natural hazard. New York City’s efforts vis-à-vis climate change included divesting its pension funds of fossil-fuel-related investments and filing lawsuits against five companies deemed most responsible for climate change. New York City was keenly aware that, as the media capital of the world, it had an outsized influence, he said, emphasizing that resilience was being institutionalized into everything it did.

Ms. WYNHOVEN focused her remarks on cybersecurity and sustainable and resilient infrastructure, saying that a growing dependence on information and communications technology (ICT) in infrastructure management carried with it an increased vulnerability to cyber risks. Cybersecurity was one of today’s hardest challenges, with the cost of cybercrime estimated at $600 billion globally. The danger of infrastructure disruption and data breeches should not, however, deter from embracing ICT as a means for achieving the Goals. She reviewed ITU programmes dealing with the issue, including a global index that measured States’ commitments to cybersecurity, enabling them to benchmark their respective approaches and pinpoint areas for improvement. An action plan had meanwhile been recently adopted for the United for Smart Sustainable Cities initiative which advocated for public policies with ICT standards playing a central role.

Mr. PONCE introduced CityHeroes, which had as its mission the use of digital technology to build better and safer cities. Its product, CityTroops, was a platform designed to address such problems as efficiency shortfalls among workers deployed on city streets, excessive time and money lost on collecting and processing information, and the lack of communication channels among authorities, companies and citizens. He said that, in rolling out its product, his company had faced several barriers, with its experience with the public sector being “more bitter than sweet”. City halls were unfamiliar with working with technology start-ups, and public tender processes could be endless, but the biggest barrier was corruption. He described how CityHeroes spent two years trying to close a $1.2 million contract with a Latin American city, but walked away when it was asked to pay a bribe. For all the talk in the Council this week, he said, no one had spoken of corruption — the biggest elephant in the room.

Ms. BURMANJE introduced the work of the Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management, describing it as a forum for coordination among and between Member States and international organizations. Stating that urban challenges required clever solutions enabled by smart technology, she said initiatives were often fragmented and small-scale, lacking the potential to bloom amid global challenges. She underscored the growing demand for high-speed connectivity, adding that, while geospatial information could provide insight, it took political and public will to make the world a better place.

The ensuing discussion focused on ways to better engage the public.

Mr. ZARRILLI said New York City had a programme called “Green NYC” geared towards explaining what residents could do in their day-to-day lives in terms of sustainable development. It was a light-hearted campaign, with a Twitter mascot, providing information on such topics as recycling, energy conservation and weatherizing homes. It also sent out reusable coffee mugs and water bottles on request, he said, underscoring the scheme’s “multiplier effect”.

Mr. GUTIÉRREZ said that achieving the Goals meant changing people’s culture and way of life. Each individual had to feel they could make a valued contribution. In his city, a “positive-oriented” publicity campaign was encouraging residents to use more public transportation and to respect their neighbours. By educating people, it would be possible to move ahead faster, he added.

Ms. WYNHOVEN said more thought should go into equal opportunities for women and girls to access and use technology. All too often, that did not get sufficient attention, but it was important to get everyone engaged.

Mr. SHANK said it would be hard to rally public interest in what felt to them like distant goals. The public could not even think in terms of six months or a year from now — and in social media, “that is forever”. Resilience and sustainable development must be put into translatable terms and concepts would make them compelling, he said.

Also speaking were the representatives of Colombia and Mexico.

Session IV: National Strategies for Resilience

The interactive session on “National strategies for resilience” was moderated by Dominic Allen, Chief, United Nations Volunteers Office in New York. It featured the following speakers: Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs of the Netherlands; Romauld Sotario Ferreira, Minister for the Environment and Housing of the Bahamas; Royol Chitradon, Adviser, Hydro and Agro Informatics Institute, Ministry of Sciences and Technology, Thailand; and Amr Nour, Director of the Regional Commissions New York Office.

Mr. ALLEN said resilience was an important part of volunteer work at the community level. While technology and innovation were fundamental, human behaviour was key, too, he said, emphasizing the need to facilitate participation by people of all walks of life. He added that, in July, United Nations Volunteers would launch a state of the world volunteerism report that would show that 109 million volunteers were active globally, a number comparable to major global industries. Any strategy for resilience must incorporate volunteer-led structures, he said.

Mr. OVINK, explaining that the Kingdom of Netherlands consisted of the Netherlands and three Caribbean islands, said resilience meant different things in different places. For Sint Maarten, it meant building better in the aftermath of a hurricane, while, in the Netherlands proper, it meant building sustainably around the sea, rivers and waterways. He introduced the “five Cs” of resiliency — commitment from all parts of society, a cross-cutting approach, collaboration, consistency and capacity-building — and stressed the need to address the “how” of resiliency and to move from reacting to climate events to building for the future. He discussed the application of the “five Cs” first in case of Sint Maarten following Hurricane Irma, then in the case of the Netherlands, where, among other things, coastal structures had been strengthened and rivers widened. He touched upon the Netherlands’ development efforts in Asia, where he said cities accounted for 83 per cent of the total world population affected by rising sea levels.

Mr. FERREIRA, describing the Bahamas as “a limestone country with a coral reef platform and fossilized sand dunes”, said his nation was miniscule in terms of contributing to greenhouse gases, yet it was sustaining more frequent and more intense hurricanes. Recalling that the 2018 North Atlantic hurricane season was just a few weeks away, he said the country’s key tourism sector alone had lost $68 million in 2017 due to major storms. Emphasizing the impact of natural disasters on those living in poverty, as well as children and the elderly, he said the Bahamas’ own resources in 2017 had been insufficient to handle the level of devastation. National strategies aimed at improving community-specific resilience. With the Bahamas importing 90 per cent of its food, the Government was providing tax breaks for healthy food. It was also revamping its meteorological service and strengthening partnerships to boost climate resilience. A major challenge had been a lack of coordination and integration across Government departments, he said, noting also reluctance among older citizens to embrace new technology. He said that, while his country would rank high on a vulnerability index, it was considered a rich country in gross domestic product (GDP) terms due to many wealthy temporary residents. That made access to funding a challenge.

Mr. ROYOL presented ways in which science and technology were being implemented in Thailand for water resource management and disaster risk reduction. That approach had contributed to raising awareness and understanding, precise monitoring and warning of disaster severity, post-disaster analysis, rehabilitation and reconstruction to prevent future risk, and “building back better” for community resilience. With a presentation, he discussed how that approach was applied to forecast a 2017 flash flood in central Thailand, with local communities providing data for integration into national platforms. He went on to discuss the application of indigenous knowledge in the south and north-east of Thailand, including one instance in which local people, learning from their elders, determined which kind of trees — in lieu of concrete — were best for managing a flood-prone waterway. After a decade, flooding was no longer a problem, he said.

Mr. NOUR, noting that the current pace and scale of funding for the Sustainable Development Goals was insufficient and must shift from billions to trillions of dollars, said the importance of the regional dimension spoke for itself. Disaster risk reduction and resilience must be part of budget and financing processes and mainstreamed into all aspects of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Significant steps had already been taken in that regard in several countries. On how the United Nations systems could support those efforts, he said one approach would be to leverage knowledge bodies at the regional level, which could help States address such issues as data gaps, innovative financing, early warning systems, resource mobilization and capacity-building. He went on to cite the technical expertise that was being extended by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) to Argentina and Cuba.

When the floor was opened for discussion, the representative of Morocco stressed the role of regional cooperation in building resilience. It was in that spirit that it had made South-South cooperation a priority, with its Blue Fund for the Congo Basin — launched by the King of Morocco — being an example.

The representative of Women Thrive Alliance, raising a point about grass‑roots organizations and national strategies, wondered how the Goals and gender equality would be achieved if those with expertise and experience were being left behind and marginalized.

The representative of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources said he was encouraged to see the extent to which ecosystem-based solutions were increasingly becoming a part of Government and community responses to climate change and disaster risk mitigation. More research was needed to demonstrate that such solutions could be more cost-effective solutions than the ones which Governments often employed.

Mr. OVINK acknowledged that funding for sustainability and resiliency was complex and demanded patience and persistence. Building regional capacities was complex, as well, given that water did not respect borders. Responding to the question about connecting with grass‑roots organizations, he said there was no alternative to being “radically inclusive”.

Mr. FERREIRA reiterated that countries must be viewed from a vulnerability perspective, rather than from a GDP one. He added that climate change was a unique opportunity for the nations of the world — including “enemies real and imagined” — to come together over a common threat.

Mr. ROYOL said that, while technology was not a panacea, risk reduction decisions must be based on the appropriate science.

Mr. NOUR said that the trans-border nature of climate-related threats made regional cooperation imperative. He added that risk and resilience should be incorporated into fiscal frameworks at the national level.

For information media. Not an official record.