Equity can help cities win the sustainability race

The Habitat III process can play an important role in this, and some key models already exist.


Two down and one to go — that is what many are saying following the successful adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in September and the Paris Agreement on climate in December.

These seminal policy documents are important steps in forming a “New Urban Agenda” for the sustainable development of cities and regions across the globe. Developing this final policy framework is already underway and will culminate in October when the United Nations convenes global stakeholders at Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador.

As these policies move from planning to implementation, cities will continue to play a pivotal role. Even more critical is the opportunity for cities to take the lead in advancing an equity agenda through the implementation of climate-change adaptation and mitigation measures.

[See: Habitat III must make climate change a top priority]

Cities and their metropolitan regions are both the world’s leading contributors of carbon-dioxide emissions and places where income inequality is rapidly increasing. Much of the world’s population lives in cities in which income inequalities have increased since 1980; this is not just a phenomenon of the Global South but one that significantly impacts on U. S. and European cities, as well.

Social equity has long been a key part of the discussion around sustainability. Yet today there is renewed effort also to link the climate change and equity agendas in response to the former’s disproportionate impact on vulnerable and marginalized communities. Moreover, there is an opportunity to further economic-inclusion goals by connecting education, workforce and business-development opportunities with the transition to a low-carbon economy.

For solutions to climate change to be truly transformative and sustainable, these strategies must be viewed through the lenses of equity and inclusion, and informed through citizen involvement and feedback. If they are, climate-change adaptation and mitigation strategies are much more likely to provide economic stimulus as well as other social and environmental benefits.

Equity innovations

For cities looking to keep up with their peers on this issue, here are some examples of innovative practices from U. S. and European cities — our key area of focus — that bring an equity lens to key dimensions of climate policy.

“For solutions to climate change to be truly transformative and sustainable, these strategies must be viewed through the lenses of equity and inclusion, and informed through citizen involvement and feedback. If they are, climate-change adaptation and mitigation strategies are much more likely to provide economic stimulus as well as other social and environmental benefits.”

Energy: Civic engagement is at the core of smart and resilient cities. Amsterdam takes this practice to heart and collaborates with citizens to innovate and deploy new energy and “clean tech” products and services within what it calls urban Living Labs. Amsterdam Smart City is partnering with Liander, the local energy-grid manager, to create one of the largest smart-energy labs in Europe, in the Nieuw-West neighbourhood.

The decision to locate the project in this diverse community helps achieve savings and emissions reduction at the neighbourhood level through a smart energy grid. More importantly, it also enables residents to better manage their energy consumption through smart metres while engaging youths through mobile game apps about energy savings.

[Habitat III forum calls for city-level targets on sustainable energy]

Transportation: A robust “green” transportation network is an important strategy for decreasing carbon emissions in cities and regions. When considering system expansions or enhancements and investing in innovative technologies, it is critical to assess how to improve equitable access to public transportation.

U. S. cities, including Denver and Atlanta, are making strides to connect low-income communities to expanded public transportation services. Critical to the success of these efforts was having regional cross-sector collaborators carrying the vision and helping aid in the implementation. For Denver it was Mile High Connects, a public-private partnership supported by Mayor Michael B. Hancock that had a key role in developing the city’s Regional Equity Atlas. Similarly in Atlanta, the TransFormation Alliance, a partnership between the regional commission and local NGOs and businesses, has developed innovative solutions to addressing urban challenges through improved transportation connectivity.

Shared-use mobility services, such as car sharing and bike sharing, offer another such opportunity. Last year, Los Angeles also announced a pilot programme to bring an electric-vehicle car-sharing initiative to low-income communities — typically, those most vulnerable to air pollution and its effects. The programme, funded by state grants, will support a broader statewide effort to make clean transportation more widely accessible in California.

Energy-efficient buildings and housing: The German city of Hamburg developed the IBA Hamburg programme to find solutions to three contrasting urban challenges: a shifting urban landscape, social inequality and climate change. The focus area was the ethnically and economically diverse waterfront neighbourhood of Wilhelmsburg.

With a price tag estimated to be over EUR 700 million (USD 792 million), not every city can take on a project of this scale. However, there are many components ripe for translation to individual local contexts, particularly the project’s strategy of combining large-scale housing redevelopment with high-tech energy-efficiency retrofits. Through effective engagement of residents (children included!) in the transformation process, IBA Hamburg was able to provide good-quality affordable housing.

[New alliance seeks to tap major climate potential of building sector]

Planning and government collaboration: Strong planning frameworks and systematic approaches to incorporating equity into sustainability and climate-change initiatives is an important foundation to linking these two mutually supportive agendas.

In the United States, Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative is at the forefront of innovative practice to infuse equity and social justice across the activities of city government. Last April, Mayor Edward Murray launched the Equity & Environment Initiative to further strengthen this agenda. Both strategies leveraged intense civic and intergovernmental engagement to develop key actions that advance the goals of ensuring that those most affected by environmental issues benefit the most from Seattle’s sustainability efforts.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio shares a similar commitment to linking resilience and equity. He has released #OneNYC, a strategic plan to ensure that all residents can thrive in a strong and just city. In researching and developing the plan, robust civic engagement and collaboration with city agencies was an important part of process to develop the strategy. As a result, the city was able to identify fundamental, cross-cutting challenges and opportunities, including better integrated social and government services.

[See: Cities can lead on climate action ahead of 2020 pledges]

Cities and regions are key contributors to any global success in the fight against climate change. Yet without a strong commitment to equity and inclusion, these areas have only moved part of the way towards achieving true resiliency. By drawing inspiration from these innovative practices, however, cities can move from incremental changes to more systematic approaches.

Cities’ role

As the preparatory process for Habitat III intensifies, it is critical that cities continue to play an active role in their national-level dialogues, especially to further understand the points of intersection between the climate, urban development and equity agendas. The window to influence on both sides of the Atlantic is by no means closed.

[See: Cities must be part of defining the New Urban Agenda]

For example, this spring the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is co-hosting meetings in five U. S. cities to engage local and regional practitioners in the preparatory process. Germany will host a major preparatory conference in Berlin in early June.

Just this past week, Europe and North America wrapped up a regional meeting to offer specific recommendations for the New Urban Agenda. Several meetings have occurred over the past several months in European cities under the World Urban Campaign’s Urban Thinkers Campus process. The most recent such campus in Mannheim, Germany, culminated in the release of a position paper that clearly emphasizes the importance of equity and inclusion in the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Redefining urban citizenship when migrants and refugees are the norm]

Given the current tumultuous political debates in both the United States and Europe at the national levels, it is clear that local leaders must continue to assert these principles and push them into the dialogue.

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Geraldine Gardner

Geraldine Ide Gardner is the director of the German Marshal Fund’s Urban and Regional Policy (URP) programme, where she leads initiatives to convene policymakers and practitioners from U. S. and European cities to explore key issues in the transatlantic urban agenda. Gardner’s expertise lies in the integrated policies and cross-sector partnerships needed to build sustainable and inclusive cities while increasing the economic competitiveness of city-regions in the global arena. Prior to joining GMF in 2012, Gardner served in key leadership positions under three mayors of the District of Columbia.

Emily Yates

Emily Yates is a programme officer in the German Marshall Fund’s Urban and Regional Policy programme and manages the Sustainable and Livable Cities initiative. Prior to joining GMF, Yates held a variety of positions in Europe and North America that focused on the intersection of economic development, sustainable urban design and community engagement. Yates has held urban planning positions within both the District of Columbia and the City of Cleveland planning offices.