It was a contrast of opportunities and challenges confronting cities around the world highlighted at the Daring Cities forum’s final session on October 28, the culmination of three weeks, 400 speakers and 200 hours of dialogue and knowledge exchange.
Mayor Ashok Sridharan of host city Bonn said the conference proved to the world that new thinking tied to transformative change in cities is possible. Hopefully, he said, the momentum achieved at this event carries over into the coming decade, as all levels of government work toward achieving the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Many people have been skeptical that the 2030 goals were “just too costly to achieve,” observed Marina Ponti, Director of the SDG Action Campaign. “But now, as we are seeing, leaders across the world are seeking to realign their societies and change their economies,” in line with the sustainable development goals.
Building on the observations made by Sridharan and Ponti, the forum’s final session began by focusing on the urgent need to restore nature before it’s too late.
“With the most rapid rates of urban expansion, Asia and Africa are projected to experience 80% of global cropland loss due to unplanned urban expansion,” warned Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. Already, for example, some large cities like Dakar and Lagos rely heavily on imports for their food supply despite nearby arable land.
Looking ahead, Thiaw described 2021 as “critically important for the world” with the Conferences of the Parties of the three Rio Conventions, the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and the UN Food Systems Summit all taking place.
Reinforcing Thiaw’s observations on the critical role nature will have in mitigating climate change and building resilience, Alok Sharma, the UK’s COP-26 president-designate, added that “we must restore nature in order to turn the tide and build our resilience toward rising global temperatures.”
In restoring natural habitats, Sharma said cities also derive such climate resilience benefits as coping better with flooding and extreme heat.
Recognizing this crucial link between climate change and biodiversity, Mayor Valerie Plante of Montreal shared news of her city’s goal to create Canada’s largest park. Once complete, the 3,000-hectare park will be eight times the size of New York’s Central Park. Plante tied this initiative in with the conviction that cities need to change how they approach climate change with meaningful action, including dramatically rethinking urban planning.
While cities around the world are already acting through the implementation of inspiring initiatives, Gino Van Begin, Secretary General of ICLEI, said that in this time of crisis, those efforts need to be accelerated. “Cities are already acting to make structural changes and responding to resident needs,” he observed. “The ‘daring’ approach must be to do more, to act better and to lead together.”
As many emerging economy cities lack the monetary resources to achieve Sustainable Development Goals on their own, financing programs supported by wealthy countries and institutions such as the World Bank remain critical. Speaking from Milan, host city of Pre-COP-26 next year, Sergio Costa, Italy’s Minister of the Environment, touched on his country’s renewed financial commitment to sustainability initiatives domestically. This includes a Super Ecobonus program that encourages home and apartment owners to do energy retrofits by covering 110% of the costs; a 210-million-Euro subsidy toward the purchase of bikes, e-bikes and scooters as a means of alternative transportation; and a 250-million-Euro initiative to finance the creation of dedicated bus rapid transit and bike lanes.
Mayor Pudence Rubingisa of Kigali, Rwanda, observed that his municipality was one of the first cities in the developing world to commit to climate change actions directly tied to meeting NDC goals. However, they cannot accomplish these goals without partner support. “We have ambitious plans to implement. But [those plans] require funding from the public and private sectors,” he said, adding that project funding is particularly needed at the city level, where most of their greenhouse gas emissions occur.
Also stressing the need to act now, Miami Mizutori, Head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, remarked that in recent years, a staggering rise in natural disasters have occurred associated with climate change, including floods, storms, heat waves, droughts and wildfires. For many, due to the combined challenges of global warming and COVID-19, “the very fabric of our lives has been stretched to the breaking point.” As such, we can no longer cling to a passive view, as the world did leading up to the pandemic. “With COVID-19 the tragedy is we knew it was going to come,” she said. And just as the world is now frantically responding to this outbreak, we must come to grips with the fact that “there is no vaccine for climate change.”
COVID-19 has shown that we must embrace knowledge and science now more than ever. Mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh of Malmö, Sweden, described how her city exemplifies this mindset. There are 14 universities and colleges nearby, and she said the city is actively leveraging these educational institutions and the knowledge sector “to accelerate our work to become a greener, healthier, more livable city.” Those measures include improving the quality of the city’s biodiversity and natural areas and ensuring “the policies and plans we implement are based on equity and inclusivity.” For example, Malmö has a comprehensive Tree Strategy for maintaining and enhancing the city’s canopy and ensuring all residents have ready access to green space.
For her city and others to achieve the goal of becoming climate neutral by 2030, Stjernfeldt Jammeh emphasized that cities and all levels of government need to continue to exchange knowledge and best practices, using Daring Cities as a springboard for next year’s COP-26 in Glasgow.
In keeping with the theme of “leaving no one behind” conveyed by United Nations Secretary General António Guterres at the beginning of the conference and echoed by presenters over the course of the month, the final session wrapped up with two presenters taking the global discussion down to the local level.
London-based lawyer and activist Farhana Yamin, with community initiative Think&Do, said that as part of “democratizing the dialogue” surrounding climate change, it’s essential that all levels of government collaborate and engage with citizens “and not just treat them as consumers and tax payers.”
Yamin said that apart from major events like the COP convenings, having more virtual events like Daring Cities where citizens of the world can attend regardless of income or geography is a good starting point. But she also advocated for “more hyper-local imagining initiatives” in neighborhood spaces and meeting areas. And, coupled with discussions surrounding climate change, “we need to be having a discussion about social and racial inequality,” she said.
Craig Segall, formerly with the Sierra Club and now Assistant Chief Counsel of the California Air Resources Board, stressed the need for governments to invest in initiatives like affordable housing, recognizing that individuals most affected by climate change are often those most vulnerable. And in the process, Segall said, we must create “denser, greener, more equitable cities.”
With Daring Cities now behind us, Secretary General Van Begin emphasized this need to continue dialogue at the local level, and to make concrete plans in support of impactful initiatives in such critical areas as biodiversity, waste management, circular economy, eco-logistics and active mobility.
We simply don’t have the luxury of postponing such actions, Van Begin said. “[We must] keep the momentum going.”
Mark Wessel is an urban journalist and public speaker who profiles unique city initiatives tied to sustainability, resiliency and quality of living that other communities can learn from. In addition to TheCityFix, his work has appeared in Next City, Municipal World, Cities Today and the Urban Future ‘City Changers’ blog. He also writes a regular Green Living column for Postmedia, Canada’s largest newspaper chain.