While negotiations rage on, many world leaders have already left COP26 in Glasgow having said their piece about a low-carbon future for their country. No one can accuse them of being short on vision. But one thing is increasingly clear — it is the doing that is the hardest part.
Since most carbon emissions come from cities, and most people live in cities, there is not an issue on the table at COP26 that does not have inextricable links with cities. For the sake of people living in slums — from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi to Jakarta in Indonesia — and for the sake of realizing the sweeping visions laid out at COP21 in Paris and now COP26, it is time to rethink cities. More specifically, it is time to rethink what success in cities means and requires.
WRI research finds that globally at least one in three urban residents currently lack access to one or more core urban services. By improving access to housing, energy, water and sanitation, and transport, we can improve quality of life for everyone. And it turns out, a more equal city is a more sustainable city, the kind of city we need to lower emissions and fight the climate crisis.
Building the Cities We Need to Meet Climate Goals
The coronavirus pandemic has pushed urban life to its limits, exposing and exacerbating deep inequality. After an especially brutal period for informal workers — of whom there are more than 2 billion in the global workforce — an unemployment gap equivalent to 127 million full-time jobs globally remained in the second quarter of 2021.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with more frequent and extreme climate impacts, are already creating new burdens in people’s everyday lives. This is most acute for the billion people living in slum-like conditions who take nothing for granted. Here, life is characterized by the hustle to secure affordable housing, reliable energy, clean water and sanitation, and safe transport.
These everyday burdens are especially prominent in the global south, where urbanization is fast, informal and unplanned. But even middle-class people in high-income countries are not immune from the stress of securing basic needs. Be it Los Angeles in the United States, or Delhi in India, housing close to job opportunities remains unaffordable for many — and wherever you are, traffic is traffic.
In short, we are not currently building the cities we need. And by 2050, two-thirds of people will live in cities. Right now, it’s fair to say their future is, at best, uncertain. Unless we make cities work for everyone, rapidly decarbonize them, and figure out how urban centers can promote nature instead of destroying it, the personal and collective promise of cities will be increasingly out of reach. And so too will be our global goals.
Prioritizing the Underserved Benefits Everyone
Six years in the making, the World Resources Report “Seven Transformations for More Equitable and Sustainable Cities” represents a growing consensus that to serve the under-served is a service to everyone, and critical to ensuring citywide access to a more sustainable, climate-friendly way of life — from clean energy to low-emission transport.
The task of creating a more equal and more sustainable city falls, in large part, to city leaders. They must collaborate across sectors and rapidly transform how their cities are built, managed and experienced, keeping equity at the core.
There is no one-size-fits-all, but whether you’re in Lagos in Nigeria or Lima in Peru, there are three key ways to create more sustainable and equal cities that help move us closer to reaching our climate goals:
First, city leaders must reimagine service provision. That means being more flexible and more ambitious about prioritizing the vulnerable, emphasizing low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure, and integrating informal service providers. For example, in Durban in South Africa, Rosario in Argentina, and Bangkok in Thailand, informal settlements in flood-prone areas have been upgraded in partnership with community groups. This helps improve infrastructure and access to services and could ensure more secure, climate-resilient environments. Meanwhile, the Colombian cities of Medellín and Bogotá have invested in high-quality, affordable public transport, helping improve access to job opportunities while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
Second, city leaders must include the excluded. This means technical work that starts with improving data collection and properly understanding the value of the informal economy. Doing so exposes gaps in services that residents can then push to be filled. This sort of information enabled informal waste pickers in Pune, India, to negotiate a municipal contract that secured their formal payment while expanding waste collection services to previously unserved neighborhoods.
Third, city leaders must enable lasting change. That means addressing shortfalls in financing, urban land management, spatial planning, and governance that today create barriers to lasting change. This is complex but necessary, and the results are rich. In Sao Paulo in Brazil and Johannesburg in South Africa, among other cities, developers are given housing subsidies to build affordable housing in urban areas already well connected to jobs and services. This helps reduce commuting distances and therefore dependence on private cars, in turn helping to decrease emissions in the long-run.
Keep Equity at the Core for Economic and Environmental Benefits
There is nothing more exhilarating than a bustling city. The innate sense of ambition, opportunity and culture. The ability to innovate and transform. If urban leaders can chart a new path with equity at the core, they will improve quality of life for billions of people today, as well as better economic and environmental outcomes tomorrow.
Decisions made in cities today have the power to affect the entire planet and its population. So, for people and for the planet, it is time to rethink cities by focusing on the basics of life — where we live, how we move, how we sustain ourselves. If there is any place where we can overcome the enormous social and environmental global challenges we face today, it is in cities.
Ani Dasgupta is President and CEO of World Resources Institute.