Cities are playing increasingly prominent roles in global sustainability efforts. The recent landmark United Nations conference on climate change in Paris demonstrated this growing role by featuring special sessions and events for city leaders, and having city conglomerates and organizations present to build their sustainability networks and influence international diplomatic outcomes. In this virtual roundtable, hosted by Leaders’ Edition (a resource for city and public-sector executives and a sister program of THINK Leaders) and co-sponsored by The Asia Society, Dr. N. Bruce Pickering, Global Programs Vice President and Executive Director of Asia Society Northern California, introduced the discussion, and Dr. Jackson Ewing, Director of Asian Sustainability at Asia Society Policy Institute, offered a brief overview of the role cities played in Paris. This provided timely context for our two featured speakers: Dr. Jiang Lin, Senior Vice President, China Strategy and Analysis at the Energy Foundation, and Dr. Bharat Dahiya, of Chulalongkorn University, Social Research Institute in Bangkok.
Bruce opened the call by explaining the function of The Asia Society, a leading organization dedicated to promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among peoples, leaders and institutions of Asia and the United States in a global context. The Society generates ideas and promotes collaboration across the fields of arts, business, culture, education and policy. Addressing climate change and promoting sustainability is one important focus of the Society.
The case for city involvement
Jackson then set the context for increasing city involvement on the global scale by highlighting the example of the recent COP21 forum in Paris. Cities are facing huge challenges and to help address them, city leaders are looking globally for solutions. The recent U.S.-China partnership around climate change is an example of these city-to-city connections that help create sustainable policies and form partnerships to drive their implementation. In this same vein, the Paris COP21 underlined how cities are coming together, with 400 mayors, including C40 city leadership, signing a Compact that demonstrates cities’ commitment to sustainability measures and decreasing emissions. This movement is taking place independent of national and regional efforts, which can be sluggish by comparison. Cities on the other hand are able to be more nimble, evidenced in part by Al Gore’s launch a United Nations Agenda for cities. In all, over 7,000 cities have committed in some form to decrease carbon emissions, representing one-fifth of the world’s population. Jackson noted that this increasing city focus in the climate change arena is due to cities being key economic drivers as well as testbeds for innovation and creativity. While nation-driven climate change efforts are top down, city measures are ad hoc and voluntary—providing them with flexibility in addressing the stresses they face due to climate change and growing urbanization.
Jiang then discussed his experience in China through Energy Foundation. China is witnessing the largest urban growth in history, creating varied challenges that the government must face. In recent years, the Chinese government has moved to a more people-focused city development strategy, where there is an emphasis on mixed use space, public transportation, walkability and better services, among others. These strategies include building smaller streets and blocks, improving pedestrian access so that cities are more friendly to walkers, building bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors and emphasizing green and low carbon buildings.
Bharat then set the broader Asian context. Asian cities, which house 48 percent of region’s total population, generate over 80% of the regional GDP. A total of 48M people per year are added to Asian cities. This has created great demand on Asian cities in terms of services, economies and infrastructure. In general, the public sector leads projects for urban infrastructure development, while private sector firms push economic growth endeavors. International organizations like the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and UN-Habitat provide financial and technical assistance with regard to developing infrastructure and improving urban governance (including services provision). Additionally, policy emphasis has been laid on public-private partnerships to facilitate urban environmental infrastructure development and meet rising demands. Yet, cities still struggle with inclusive and sustainable urban development and rising slum populations.
Cities built on data
One key area where cities could use assistance is with the understanding of data and its management. Since Asian cities are growing so quickly, it is hard for city leaders to have a firm grasp on the demand and provision of urban services and infrastructure. An enhanced ability to collect such data, and analyze it for full understanding and recommendations for action, would greatly assist with city leaders’ policy response. This will require greater citizen involvement in urban policy dialogue and decision-making, which is increasingly being facilitated by smart technologies in Asia and beyond.
The ensuing discussion explored what’s next for cities, including the rise of civil society organizations and interest groups to help push cities to become more involved in climate change efforts. Bruce observed that public-private partnerships (PPPs) involving these types of organizations will be a key component of moving forward, both to build public awareness and for funding purposes. Jiang agreed with this point noting this is the way of future urban development. In addition to exploring PPPs, another important step city leadership can take is to work climate change issues into city development plans across the various city sectors. Urban growth in Asia is moving so fast that cities often have no real comparative example to follow, therefore they must co-design and co-learn—creating environments where cities increasingly engage people, businesses and other cities to address the challenges they face. As noted by Bruce, “in these new situations, cities don’t have experience addresses these new, growing challenges, therefore they don’t know what they don’t know”. Co-design and co-learning will be crucial in this sense, according to Bharat, and predicated upon open channels of communication and sharing. For example, there are apps that help solicit feedback from city residents on city services that can enhance and speed communication between city leaders and their constituents.
In the end, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all plan for cities in dealing with climate change. But, while each city must have their own plan—sharing experiences will be key. As Jackson concluded with a thought from a Singaporean urban planning official, “if you have a problem, odds are someone else has had it, go find them to learn”.
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