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Global Environment for Cities (GEO for Cities): Towards greener, just cities – World
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Global Environment for Cities (GEO for Cities): Towards greener, just cities – World

Summary for city-level decisionmakers

The second edition of GEO for Cities reveals that cities can drive progress towards the 2030 Agenda, and its Sustainable Development Goals.This requires that cities are redesigned and designed to make them more resilient, inclusive, and just. This potential can be realized by adopting the transformative visions, pathways to implementation and pathways to success presented in this Report. Cities can become beacons for others.

Cities are multifaceted places of exchange that interact with each other and internally.These interactions are what make urban innovation possible. This is how cities can transform their environments and society, while also affecting places outside their immediate urban area.

Urbanization continues to rise around the globe, but growth is not equally distributed.Megacities are still economically, socially, and ecologically important. However, growth is also increasing in smaller and medium-sized cities, particularly in developing countries. Inequality within and among cities can have a detrimental effect on health and wellbeing as well as the environment. This inequality has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

These interactions and challenges are not easy to manage in cities.They are confronted by multiple dimensions of ecological, economic and social dynamics that reinforce unsustainable trajectories. Several factors “lock” cities into an unsustainable status quo, including:

  1. The predominance of the static political system often leads to the capture by vested interest of governance systems

  2. The dominance of business as usual models of urban planning that focus on controlling, taming, or exploiting nature;

  3. Complex and multi-level governance systems within which cities operate and to which they belong. These factors can vary between cities, but they have slowed down transformational progress to this point.

Cities are being affected by global environmental challenges.The conditions under which cities developed and function today are changing. Global changes, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, have direct consequences at the city level. These changes have a direct impact on urban environments. It is urgent that we consider their implications. Global environmental challenges affect the value and quality of urban life as well as the city’s infrastructure. The city’s health, equity, food security, and health are all affected by environmental changes.

Cities have an impact on all three environmental crises: pollution, biodiversity loss, and climate change.Current environmental degradation is a result of urban activities, both within and outside their borders. These environmental impacts are mainly due to the increased energy and material consumption in cities (especially in transport and buildings), and increasing food and waste generation. There is enough information and data to enable cities to take important actions. However, there are gaps in the data quality and quantity that could be filled to improve urban planning and environmental management at city level. Urban environment planning and management must take into account ecological processes as well as nature-based solutions for all residents of the city, human and non-human.

Some cities are using different governance processes to build more environmentally-sustainable and equitable futures.These are the foundations of these approaches

  1. inclusive, publicly engaged decision-making;

  2. Partnerships and coalition-based government;

  3. Institutionalization for longevity and scaling-up These strategies are only as successful as the time and place they are applied.

These approaches make urban planning and city management important tools for improving the sustainability performance of cities.Urban planning and city management should consider the complexity, diversity of and interconnections within cities and beyond to alter current trends and achieve multiple Sustainable Development Goals.

GEO for Cities envisions a vision for environmentally-sustainable and just cities that acknowledges the diversity of cities. They will also help guide these urban transformations.The vision and the dimensions that it relates to are consistent with international conventions and agreements on development, sustainability and disaster prevention. This vision of the future urban world and its dimensions is linked to transformation paths that are tailored to local priorities and capacities. These are presented as a set of transitional actions.

Cities must be part the solution to climate change and environmental problems. If it is implemented quickly, the broad, flexible vision for environmentally sustainable and just cities will allow cities to lead the transformation called for in the United Nations Environment Programme’s Sixth Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-6) and help avoid irreversible tipping points. This vision is based upon strong scientific evidence, case studies and forward-looking ideas on how policy, practice, and behaviour can lead to environmentally sustainable cities. With this vision, we identify three main areas of urban action – or urban dimensions – involving

  1. Low carbon, energy and material efficiency; also circularity

  2. Resilience and sustainability

  3. Multispecies justice and social inclusion are two of the core areas that can be used to advance sustainability.

These dimensions are interconnected and extend across urban and regional land uses, sociotechnical system, and biophysical features and ecologies, power relationships, governance systems, institutions, energy, materials, and information flows, as well as cultural practices, social behaviour, and multispecies interactions.

Sharing understanding, commitment, and desireCities around the world need to make this vision a reality by implementing deep, strategic, and substantial urban change in order to address interconnected environmental and development issues.

Progress towards an inclusive, sustainable, and just urban transformation requires pathwaysTo create urban circularity, achieve deep carbonization, design for urban resilience, and support social inclusion, justice, and justice in cities. To ensure that the whole is greater then the sum of its parts, it is important to inject a justice perspective across all of these paths.

To design and implement pathways that lead to just and environmentally sustainable outcomes, you need simultaneous strategies to overcome the deep-seated blockages that pervade many cities.Particularly in relation to their political economy and business-as usual urban planning approaches.

Many cities that are trying to make urban development more sustainable are only achieving a fraction the potential outcomes.Many such examples show that successful restructuring fundamental processes of governance can eventually lead to these transformational outcomes.

These pathways are often complex and must be so if we are to solve the interrelated problems of environmental sustainability and social equity.The most important lesson is that you cannot expect any one actor or group to perform a transformative role. Collaboration is key.

These transformation pathways will require several key actions to be achieved. including:

  • Designing urban infrastructure to promote more equitable, resilient and environmentally sustainable living, production, and consumption Because urban infrastructure is long-lasting, it can ‘lock-in’ and shape resource needs and service inequities for decades to come.

  • Investing in mechanisms that promote cross-sectoral, multi-jurisdictional collaboration and governance.Transformative, systemic action requires cross-sectoral coordination and integration between jurisdictions within urban and suburban regions, as well as between local, subnational and national authorities.

  • All local environmental programming and actions must be viewed as an opportunity to seek equity and justice.Equity and justice shouldn’t be treated as secondary considerations. They require strategies to address the multiple structural causes of inequity common in cities. In the case of informality, it is important that the everyday lives and livelihoods of ordinary people are recognized and supported.

  • Establishing reciprocal rural/urban linksThere are many flows and interactions that can occur between urban and rural areas. These can be used as entry points for developing interventions that have reciprocal benefits. These include the movement of people, capital and information in both directions, as well as nutrients and ecosystem services.

  • Incorporating data and science insights into decision-making:Expertise is often required to provide long-term planning and transformal pathways with the right insights. This expertise is not usually available within local governments. Expert guidance is often required to gather, process, and interpret the data required for material flows analyses, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity baselines, resilience assessments, and other purposes.

  • Encouragement of inter-city learning and exchangeCities face many challenges. They need to identify and resolve these problems in their own development paths, rather than implementing strategies that have been prescribed by others. Although urban agendas must be tailored to their contexts, geographies, and histories, it is extremely valuable to share experiences with other cities.

As stated by Maassen (2019):

“[r]eal world examples of deep urban transformations are hard to come by.”

There is a rich history of progress towards making the necessary changes. Collectively, we need to identify what works, and then come up with ethical principles that can be used locally to adapt existing experiences and forecast trends to implement transformative actions. By doing so, we can build a collective understanding and experience base about how cities and citizens, local authorities, and their networks, are co-producing pathways toward progressive and forward-looking city agendas, while inspiring others to do it. We all have the responsibility and opportunity to tackle this challenge so that everyone can live in cities they love.

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