Regional strategies make small places bigger, Habitat III forum notes

Some 70 percent of urban growth will be in cities of 500,000 people or less. An Urban Thinkers Campus in Nebraska looked at how smaller towns can band together to tackle complex common concerns.

Joggers run around a lake in Omaha, Nebraska. Small and mid-sized cities will be critical players in responding to the world’s most pressing urban challenges. (Eric Francis/Shutterstock)

OMAHA, UNITED STATES — “When you have a problem in your city,” said Jessica Johnston, a senior programme manager for the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), “you don’t call the president. No, you call your city council member or a key staffer.”

“Even with climate change,” she continued, “the impacts are all local.”

Johnston was speaking at a recent Urban Thinkers Campus, one of a few dozen global stakeholder events organized by UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign to gather input ahead of next year’s Habitat III conference on sustainable urban development.

[See here for Citiscope’s coverage on other Urban Thinkers Campuses]

The run-up to that conference, to be held in Quito, Ecuador, in October, has seen numerous preparatory meetings and much discussion on the looming concerns and opportunities of urbanization. But the Urban Thinkers Campus in Omaha, in the U. S. state of Nebraska, was pointedly focused on the role of small and mid-sized cities.

These smaller areas are a critical piece of the broader puzzle around sustainable urbanization, after all. Some 70 percent of the growth in urban populations will take place in cities of 500,000 people or less, making these small and mid-sized cities critical players in responding to the world’s most pressing urban challenges.

As yet, however, many of those urban areas — at least in the United States — are not thinking much about sustainability. Some 42 percent of U. S. cities have no goal, no plan, not even a task force looking at challenges of sustainability, according to ICMA findings.

However, those that are looking at this issue are discovering that they need partners, said Johnston, who led a session about the opportunities of small cities banding together to take a regional approach to tackling common concerns. They’re finding that regional strategies are indispensable to making progress on complex issues such as sustainability.

[See: In Montréal, Habitat III forum hails rise of ‘cities planning’]

Johnston likes to cite a regional epiphany that took place in southeast Florida in recent years. The city of Miami may be prominent on the list of cities that could be inundated by rising sea levels related to climate change, but in fact the response has been much broader.

Three years ago, all of southeast Florida — with some 5.6 million people in more than 100 cities — embraced a joint action plan for dealing with the threats of climate change. The four counties that formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact now track sea-level rise projections reductions in carbon emissions in the major categories. They also provide technical assistance to local communities both to mitigate the causes of climate change and to adapt to what’s coming.

Southeast Florida, for decades a dominant destination for people from other countries, mostly from Latin America, has long struggled for a sense of broader community. Today, climate change looks like a ready catalyst to make a regional approach something realistic, even necessary.

Natural resource regions

As expected, public officials and other leaders from Nebraska dominated participation in the conference, which took place 16-17 November and was organized by the Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities. And given that Nebraska is a deeply conservative state, one might have expected to find some scepticism about an initiative associated with the United Nations.

[See: U. S. announces regional meetings to build on Habitat III report]

“Three years ago, all of southeast Florida — with some 5.6 million people in more than 100 cities — embraced a joint action plan for dealing with the threats of climate change.”

However, Nebraskans long ago figured out that, at least where their environment is concerned, regional approaches are key. During the 1970s, the state organized itself into “natural resource regions” (sometimes called eco-regions), not by politically drawn boundaries but by the state’s multiple watersheds.

Dale Shotkowski did not consider himself a typical participant at the Habitat III event. A city administrator for Fremont, a nearby city of some 26,000, he said he came to the campus largely out of curiosity.

He admitted that local politics are never easy, but his city is currently experiencing a fast and significant loss of its traditional population base. In this context, he said, “Folks may be wary of change, but they’re just as nervous about where things are headed anyway.”

Shotkowski was quick to point out Nebraska’s tradition of taking a regional approach. “People actually line up to run for seats in these eco-regions bodies,” he said, suggesting that Nebraskans do not feel removed from environmental threats such as water shortages.

A key role for these regional bodies is, for instance, ruling on who can draw water from a major river that runs through this state. They also decide where levies can be built, a factor that determines where flood control succeeds and makes water allocations more equitable. Otherwise, it’s just the “wild, wild west all over again,” Shotkowski said.

[See: New Urban Agenda discussions ‘must translate into useful action’, New York event told]

But is the Habitat III agenda relevant to smaller communities, including in the United States? “Absolutely, even more than I thought coming in,” Shotkowski said. “Hey, it’s looking like we’ll have more storms, more frequent droughts, on top of practices already depleting our main aquifer. We have to pay attention. We’ve run out of options.”

‘Never before measured’

Others are noting the sustainable energy potential in the smaller towns that populate Nebraska’s rural areas. Chuck Hassebrook, head of Sandhills Wind Energy and a long-time environmental activist, pointed to the state’s already extensive wind-power production, while the cost of solar energy is also “going down faster than other modes”, he noted.

At the Urban Thinkers Campus, Hassebrook created a minor stir with his contention that one of Nebraska’s most abundant outputs — cattle manure — was the key to restoring the right organic ratios in agricultural soils.

The acknowledged dean of all things “sustainable” commanded respectful attention each time he spoke at the two-day event. Cecil Steward, who founded the host Joslyn Institute at the University of Nebraska nearly 20 years ago, said that in addition to the well-established regional eco-districts for tackling sustainability issues, his organization focuses on educating leaders and assisting with implementation.

The Joslyn Institute considers itself a pioneer in expanding the original U. N.-sanctioned definition of sustainability — balancing economic, environmental and social/cultural concerns — to include both technology and public policy.

“It’s a complete waste of time having arguments over who’s causing the environmental threats or who’s responsible for inequalities of opportunity,” Steward said. “We now are at a point never before measured, so we’d better spend our time figuring out how to adapt to these conditions.”

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