Urban Expansion Requires Teams to Redefine Sustainability
Urban overflow is overtaking the world. In 10 years, 43 cities will have more than 10 million residents—up from 33 today, according to the United Nations. By 2050, 68 percent of the world’s population will live in cities—up from 55 percent today. This rapid influx of people will stretch already strained resources, including public transportation, affordable housing and energy, to their limits.
To bear the growing load while contending with the inevitable environmental strains, more cities around the world are investing heavily in urban development projects that prioritize climate resilience—the ability to absorb, recover from and even mitigate the extreme effects of climate change and related threats.
“Cities have always undergone immense change,” says Abena Ojetayo, chief resilience officer and director, City of Tallahassee, Tallahassee, Florida, USA. “They’ve always had to evolve with shifting populations and changing economies. But over the last decade or so, cities have started to feel the real impact of more extreme natural and man-made events. It’s become clear that city leaders need to plan for these vulnerabilities specifically.”
Take a tour of five cities that are adapting:
PHOTO COURTESY OF MERCY CORPS
Mercy Corps’ Mongolia field team is made up of 46 members and is led by Country Director Wendy Guyot, right.
Catalyst: The country’s nomadic livestock herders are moving to the city in droves. Why? Temperature and weather extremes are eviscerating vast grasslands during the hottest months and killing animals (1.7 million since 2018) during the coldest months.
Vision: To reduce urban overcrowding, teams are rethinking infrastructure expansion. And to stem migration, they are creating programs that foster resiliency against climate change in rural areas.
■ In 2019, XacBank and global nongovernmental organization Mercy Corps partnered on a one-year pilot project to generate more sustainable livestock production. Loans helped farmers restore their pastures and provided incentives for them to reduce herd sizes.
■ Mercy Corps last year completed a project to deliver a digital platform that gives herders expanded access to weather forecasts. The text-message system helps them plan for conditions that threaten livestock.
■ In Ulaanbaatar, a US$320 million project is creating six city subcenters, two of which are already under construction. The project is designed to mitigate the impact of population density.
“The key, especially when you’re focusing on resilience, is that it can’t be an outsider-in approach. We have tools, we have knowledge, we have experience from other places, but the priorities and solutions have to be generated from within. It’s really working with that local population to get them to understand how to prioritize, like what are the things that are significant to them and how do you work those important factors into your messaging, into your planning.”
—Marc Tassé, PMP, former director of programs, Mercy Corps, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Wellington, New Zealand
Catalyst: A 7.8-magnitude earthquake in 2016 across New Zealand left extensive infrastructure damage in Wellington and served as a wakeup call for the capital city to be better prepared for extreme events.
Vision: Wellington will need to complete NZ$5.3 billion in infrastructure upgrade projects over the next 20 years to help the entire country avoid an economic disaster in the event of a major earthquake, according to a report published in December by Wellington Lifelines Group, a consortium of public agencies and private utilities.
■ In 2018, Wellington launched a free app that shows how an extreme sea rise would impact the city and helps people plan for emergency scenarios. The app was part of the city’s larger NZ$280 million resilience initiative.
■ The city launched a project last year to gather community feedback that will help it develop a strategy to mitigate projected population growth over the next 30 years.
■ A NZ$40 million revamp of an existing substation in central Wellington would deliver infrastructure and cable improvements that could be completed by 2024.
“When you ask people what they think resilience is, often eyes will roll like they used to do with sustainability. But within a week of starting the job, people began talking about resilience through their personal lenses. I had economists talking to me about economic resilience and counselors talking about personal resilience. Engineers wanted to talk about stresses on shear walls and our pipes and that kind of stuff. Part of my challenge was to define a broader resilience for the city. We took the best part of a year to define what it means for Wellington, the city.”
—Mike MendonÇa, chief resilience officer, Wellington City Council, Wellington, New Zealand
PHOTO COURTESY OF CITY OF TALLAHASSEE
Tallahassee, Florida, USA
Catalyst: More than a quarter of Tallahassee’s residents live in poverty—double the national average. And a steady barrage of hurricanes—Hermine (2016), Irma (2017) and Michael (2018)—have hit impoverished communities the hardest.
Vision: The city wants to strategically plan and prioritize projects to counter various threats to quality of life and reduce the impact of poverty—all of which can be completed or launched by 2024.
■ The city’s five-year, US$300,000 community resilience plan implements strategic initiatives to strengthen infrastructure, develop the city’s adaptivity to single-event disasters, and address housing, food and job insecurity.
■ In 2017, the city government launched a program to help at-risk youth between ages 16 and 24 earn educational certifications or secure a vocational job in industries combating climate change.
■ The Build Up Tallahassee program, launched in 2019, accelerates career development for disadvantaged populations, including 12 weeks of paid training to help build construction-sector skills.
“The challenges are probably time and resources to get it all done. When it comes to resilience—and especially climate and disaster resilience—there is a sense of urgency. So you have to balance this need to do something right now, because you don’t know what is around the corner. Right in the middle of our own resilience planning, we were hit with the strongest hurricane in our region’s history. Cities must resist the ‘tyranny of the moment’ and pursue thoughtful strategies for long-term resilience.”
—Abena Ojetayo, chief resilience officer and director, City of Tallahassee, Tallahassee, Florida, USA
Feeling the Heat
Catalyst: Last year, Helsinki set a goal to become carbon neutral by 2035 through projects that improve traffic, energy efficiency in buildings and clean energy production.
Vision: The European Union-sponsored Six City Strategy aims to boost Finland’s economic competitiveness through sustainable urban development in the country’s six largest cities. Helsinki is a test hub for such projects.
■ A €1.3 million logistics project, slated for completion this year, will decrease the number of vehicles on the road. A series of pilot projects lean on local logistics operators to develop sustainable solutions, including autonomous drone distribution.
■ Helsinki is a partner in the €3.3 million Energy Wise Cities project to elevate cities’ energy consciousness. The two-year initiative aims to develop zero-energy construction and other innovations, such as a simulation model connecting the energy grid via intelligent control systems.
■ A three-year, €5.4 million project that ends in August is helping companies develop smart technologies and test them in user-centric places like schools, day care centers and universities.
“A basic rule of the program says that there needs to be organizations from at least two of the six cities involved in each project. These organizations are actually working together, not side by side, and not just networking or having seminars or sharing good practices. It’s a best-case scenario because they can solve problems collaboratively. And the companies themselves can have better access to other cities so their solutions can scale there more easily.”
—Antti Eronen, program coordinator, Six City Strategy, Economic Development Unit, City of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CITY OF BRAMPTON
Brampton, Ontario, Canada
Catalyst: With 20,000 new residents each year, the city within the greater Toronto region ranks as the second-fastest-growing city in Canada and is projected to reach a population of 1 million by 2040.
Vision: Brampton’s urban master plan (based on environmental standards set by LEED for Neighborhood Development and the city’s sustainable community program) has three primary objectives: close collaboration with public stakeholders, building green spaces and infrastructure, and prioritizing community health.
■ The Ontario Municipal Commuter Cycling Program is sponsoring a CA$1.7 million initiative to create 106 kilometers (66 miles) of bike lanes to reduce vehicle traffic. The projects are scheduled to be completed by December.
■ To address surging ridership on Brampton Transit, the Canadian government plans to invest CA$350 million in the city’s public transit infrastructure through 2028, including new buses and rapid transit lines.
■ In December, the city approved a CA$8 million project to turn Brampton’s last undeveloped site into an environmental education facility and park, complete with trails, a community event space, a dog park and a playground.
“One of the biggest challenges is that in the past, communities were designed with a focus on automobiles. In order to move the city towards a sustainable future, we have to find the right balance. That means investing in public transit, and it requires a robust street-related environment that is exciting, so people actually want to use walking and cycling as a means of transportation.”
—Yvonne Yeung, PMP, manager, urban design, City of Brampton, Brampton, Ontario, Canada