Cities are a puzzle for some and inspiration for others. As engines of economic growth, they are also hubs of rapid urbanization, a rising middle class, and a growing population. These three mega-trends drive global environmental degradation yet are only part of the important challenge facing cities today.
While consuming over two-thirds of global energy supply and emitting 70% of all carbon dioxide, cities are also uniquely vulnerable to climate change. Fourteen of the world’s 19 largest cities are located in port areas. With sea level rise and increased storm activity, these areas are likely to face coastal flooding, damage to infrastructure, and compromised water and food security. Under these conditions, meeting urban population’s growing production and consumption needs for food, energy, water, and infrastructure will overload rural and urban ecosystems.
To tackle these issues, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), in collaboration with the World Bank Group (WBG), launched the Sustainable Cities Program to engage 23 cities in 11 developing countries. Hailing from one of such countries, two urban development specialists working on each side of the Program explain why making cities more sustainable appeals to them.
- municipal finances
- inclusive cities
- low-carbon cities
- low-carbon development
- Energy Efficiency
- sustainable cities
- urban sustainability
- urban floods
- resilient cities
- urban resilience
- Public Sector and Governance
- Global Economy
- Climate Change
- Urban Development
- Sustainable Communities
Also available in Thai
The wet season has already arrived in Thailand, and with it, also memories of the devastating floods that in 2011 affected more than 13 million people, left 680 dead, and caused US$46.5 billion in damages and losses. The impact of the floods on businesses and global supply chains has been well-documented with accounts making headlines throughout 2012. But how about the poor?
The flooding altered the lives of hundreds of thousands of men and women - particularly those in already precarious situations. Two years onwards, what has changed? Having visited two slum upgrading projects in north Bangkok last month, there are insights relevant for other Asian cities grappling with rapidly growing populations, the force of natural hazards, and climatic uncertainties.
‘It’s raining, it’s pouring. The old man is snoring.’ Truth be told, I apparently snore, and I suppose I’m not that young anymore. But hard to believe, I’m sure this nursery rhyme is not about me. And despite the recent Noah-like floods in Europe, Bangkok, Calgary, Dhaka, Jakarta, New York and Toronto, it’s not really about any one city, or any one country, or even any one continent. But, ‘went to bed and bumped his head. And won’t get up in the morning,’ aptly describes our current political paralysis.
Many children know this song. Soon they will learn how their grandfathers and fathers slept through the rain.
Here in troubled Toronto and gritty Calgary, there was the inevitable debate on whether or not the recent floods could be attributed to climate change. ‘If it’s this bad now, what’s the future hold?’ people wondered. ‘Sleepwalking into trouble,’ came to mind for many.
For the East Asia & Pacific Transport, Urban & Disaster Risk Management team of the World Bank, a recent study trip to New Orleans was an eye-opener about how even the richest society in the world can face challenges that are strikingly similar to those of our client countries. In a city that is famous for the excesses of the French Quarter, the opulence of the Garden District and (since that fateful August in 2005) the desolation of the Lower 9th Ward, we saw how the impacts of a disaster are made all the worse when prosperity is not shared.
Two years after Katrina, I made my first trip to New Orleans to study the reconstruction process. The Lower 9th still had mountains of debris from flattened houses on most blocks. Where houses still stood throughout the city, FEMA’s iconic Urban Search & Rescue ‘x-codes’ remained as eerie signposts on the road to recovery.
A recent learning trip to New Orleans by the East Asia and Pacific Transport, Urban and Disaster Risk Management team introduced the unique charms of this city to many of us for the first time. Anyone who has been to New Orleans will remember the city for its historic but lively French Quarter, its living jazz tradition, with bands of talented local musicians playing for tips in the narrow streets, its Mardi Gras floats, its Cajun food, the oldest continually operating streetcar system in the world, and the varied history of the city that has resulted in its distinct Creole culture. As Dave Roberts, a local tour guide, explains to tourists, this was where the classical music tradition of the French colonialists came into contact with the pulsating African rhythms of freed slaves escaping to Louisiana from Haiti. The fact that jazz music was consequently born in New Orleans “was not a coincidence,” he says. “Few things are.”
Everywhere we went in New Orleans, we heard painful stories of those who had lived through Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But what was striking was the pride that the residents of New Orleans have in their city and their determination to rebuild it. As my colleague Artessa Saldivar-Sali describes, city officials and the US Army Corps of Engineers have dedicated themselves to strengthening the city’s defenses in order to ensure that the next time the city is hit, it is better prepared. Well-educated New Orleanians and outsiders have come to work at the city redevelopment authority, the disaster preparedness agency, and community-based affordable housing organizations. These are people who could easily abandon New Orleans for well-paid private sector jobs in other US cities but who have chosen instead to use their talents in aid of the poor and vulnerable and towards the greater good of their city.
As the East Coast USA deals with Hurricane Sandy, aka “Frankenstorm”, and Hawaii breathes a sigh of relief at a downgraded tsunami, we are again reminded of the immediate and long-term socio-economic destruction of natural disasters. Hurricane Sandy has resulted in school and public transportation closures, flight cancellations, area evacuations, and even modified Presidential campaign schedules. New York Mayor Bloomberg urged residents to cooperate, “if you don't evacuate, you are not only endangering your life, you are also endangering the lives of the first responders who are going in to rescue you. This is a serious and dangerous storm.”1
Ground zero for natural disasters lies not in the US, however, but in the Asia Pacific Region. Last week, UN ESCAP/UNISDR released the Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2012, ‘Reducing Vulnerability and Exposure to Disasters’. In the year 2011 alone, Asia Pacific represented:
- 80% (US$ 294/366.1 billion) of the annual global disaster losses
- Half of the most costly natural disaster events
New York City has been a global leader in proactively planning and preparing for climate change under Mayor Bloomberg and the city’s civic leaders. PlanNYC sets out clear goals and plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30% and to increase the resilience of our communities, natural systems, and infrastructure to climate risks. It already started the process of adapting to climate change, including elevating infrastructure such as wastewater treatment plant, and expanding “green infrastructure” like marshes along the coast to buffer and limit flooding impacts.
But the events triggered by the unprecedented hurricane Sandy haven shown that what has been done is still not sufficient. What can we learn from the disaster? There will be a lot of valuable lessons coming out in the months ahead, as emergency responses are still ongoing and reconstruction are yet to start. Here are three early lessons: