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Shades of Green Cities

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Seoul, KoreaWhen it comes to urban development, “green” has become the buzzword. Among the public, “green” is often understood to be synonymous with reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In policymaking, “green” has much broader implications. It can range from preventing, treating, and abating pollution, to preserving and restoring environmental quality. It may simply be providing basic urban services which improve the cleanliness of streets. Apparently, there are different shades of “green” — we could define interventions targeting global public goods as dark green and those focusing more on local public goods as light green. Among them, what is the right one for South Asian cities?

Practitioners and government officials from the region had intensive discussions on this question throughout a recent workshop on urbanization in Korea, organized by the World Bank in collaboration with the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements.

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GHG reduction as a target was the most controversial. GHG reduction should not be the priority, one participant argued, because the carbon footprint of South Asian countries is much smaller than that of OECD countries. The statistics on GHG emission per capita support this view. While not completely disagreeing, other participants propose to look at the co-benefits. Beyond global impact, city-level energy and climate policies can often generate local economic and social gains. At the same time, some of the most important dark green policies are those we might not even think of being green per se. A case in point is decisions with respect to urban transport systems which influence urban form and, thus, the compactness of a city.

More broadly speaking, complementarities and synergies between environmental and economic objectives can be achieved at the local level. A recent analysis of 78 metropolitan areas in OECD countries suggests that local pollution emissions drive city attractiveness which, in turn, is strongly correlated with firms’ investment decisions. Cities, including many in the South Asian region, are vulnerable to climate change and other environmental concerns, which could sweep away years of progress in growth and poverty reduction, and foundations for future development. Millions of people live in areas at high risks of flooding in Mumbai, the most populous city in India; at the current rates, sea level would be high enough to make Male, the capital of Maldives, uninhabitable by 2100. The synergies, however, are not mechanical as some participants implied. When greening policies, especially related to energy and climate, are excessively onerous, they may force local businesses to shut down, stunting growth.

Cheonggyecheon, 5.8 km creek flowing west to east through downtown SeoulComplementarities and synergies between environmental and social objectives were where the attention lay. Social equity, though not explicitly mentioned, is at the heart of these practitioners and government officials. When defining “green,” they emphasized the urgency to provide basic urban services to all, consisting of plots without risks of floods and other natural disasters, safe water, improved sanitation, reliable electricity, affordable mass transportation, and so on. Livable cities for all are what they seek. Despite potential synergies, financial costs are high to achieve even this level of “green,” and social conflicts often arise. In this context, they proposed designing smarter policies, “doing old things in a new way,” and having a longer-term perspective to avoid “lock-in” effect. When drawing lessons from international expertise, they sought solutions to slums and ways of consultation.

In the end, consensus on the right shade of “green” for South Asian cities was not reached. As disappointing as it sounds, the vagueness and richness of “green” offers space for cities to explore, may it be incremental or leapfrogging:

  • In the Republic of Korea, Sejong — a new multifunctional green city being built — has already been challenged by the emerging concepts of “low-carbon green” city and “ubiquitous” city.
  • Chicago, in the United States, extends the definition of “green” to apply to activities that respond to resource scarcity issues.
  • Leeds, in the United Kingdom, uses its Green Infrastructure Strategy to leverage natural assets as a means to improve environmental performance, economic vitality, and enhance environmental health.
  • Colombo, Sri Lanka, has been successfully carrying out its Green Growth Program, quantifying both environmental and social gains for financing.
  • Thimphu, Bhutan, is implementing a structural plan for a balanced ecological development.



Photos: Downtown Seoul, Korea; Cheonggyecheon creek restoration project (5.8 km creek flowing west to east through downtown Seoul).  Photo credit: Yue Li



Yue Li

Senior Economist

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