By Seth Schultz, C40 Director of Research, Measurement & Planning, Ani Dasgupta, Global Director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, and Nick Godfrey, Head of Policy and Urban Development at New Climate Economy.
Cities are all about efficiency. It’s why they exist: to allow easy access to jobs, goods, services and ideas. However, in many countries, new and expanding cities are sprawling, car-dependent and uncoordinated – a set-up that’s not only inefficient, but carbon-intensive.
Thankfully, a new vision for sustainable urban growth is spreading, emphasizing the economic and environmental benefits of compact, connected and coordinated cities. More efficient urban growth can drive a productive, equitable economy while limiting traffic accidents, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Wide consensus is forming among national and local leaders, who understand the economic case for an urban transition. But while we have agreed on a better vision for future cities, what remains to be seen is the “how” of the transition.
To find these solutions, the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, New Climate Economy and C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group are teaming up to launch the Coalition for Urban Transitions. The Coalition, unveiled during today’s Climate Action 2016 Summit, will bring together global leaders and evidence-based solutions to make the economic case for a new model of urban development: one that is more productive, safer, healthier, more inclusive and lower carbon.
Working with 20 partner organizations, the Coalition will develop a continuous stream of economic evidence and policy strategies to help national and local decision-makers working towards a transition. It will be championed by a high-profile Urban Leadership Group, expected to include members of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate and other prominent city, national and international leaders.
Together, these institutions and individuals span the globe. What they all share is a common purpose: unlocking a better urban future for all.
This will be one of the first major international initiatives to focus on the economics of urban transitions, and will focus in particular on the role of national policymakers. Through high-level thought leadership and a series of country studies, the Coalition will help put effective urban infrastructure investment where it belongs—at the heart of national economic development planning.
The Economic Case for Better Urbanization
Analysis by the New Climate Economy finds that investing in public transit, building efficiency and waste management in cities could unlock an economic dividend worth almost $17 trillion by 2050 from energy savings alone – and that’s just a fraction of the wider benefits. This could also reduce carbon emissions each year by more than the current annual emissions of India.
Evidence-based solutions like improved finance for infrastructure, integrated land-use planning, and transit-oriented development can empower sustainable, economically dynamic cities. For example, WRI Ross Center research shows that investing in sustainable transport could save as much as $300 billion per year, while C40’s Transit Oriented Development Network is advancing policies for integrated land use and transportation.
Better Planning for Better Cities
Individual cities often do not have the resources to carry out large-scale investments in smart urban infrastructure. Only 4 percent of the 500 largest cities in developing countries are deemed creditworthy in international financial markets.
National governments, though, working hand-in-hand with cities and the private sector, can unlock the power of urban areas to invest and innovate. For example, national leaders and ministers can:
- Develop national urban infrastructure strategies (like China’s National Plan for New Urbanization) and set up integrated land use and transport authorities to more effectively plan and connect urban growth;
- Reduce or eliminate fossil fuel subsidies to remove incentives for car-centric development and encourage more sustainable transport;
- Change planning laws to encourage mixed-use development over sprawled, segmented cities; and
- Scale up innovative finance mechanisms to support large-scale urban infrastructure projects.
National economic planning has too long ignored the real importance of cities, so that’s where the Coalition for Urban Transitions comes in. It will link city-level strategies with broader economic development planning, so that individual city efforts add up to more than the sum of their parts.
The Coalition will work on the ground with three to five rapidly urbanizing countries on their national urban infrastructure and financing strategies. Potential countries include China, India and a number of rapidly urbanizing African, South Asian and Latin American economies. The work will be demand-driven, based on timely and relevant research, and done in close collaboration with key economic decisionmakers.
There’s evidence this method of change works. Last year, the New Climate Economy collaborated with the Ethiopian government to inform its national level urbanization strategy. It found that Ethiopia’s development was too focused on its capital, Addis Ababa, at the expense of its other cities. The Unlocking the Power of Ethiopia’s Cities report mapped out potential city clusters and corridors of economic activity that could enhance the role of secondary cities without taking away from Addis’s growth. Policymakers incorporated this more efficient approach into Ethiopia’s new Five Year Growth and Transformation Plan, which is being implemented today.
With the help of the Coalition for Urban Transitions, leaders at all levels can be empowered to transform cities through relevant research and locally appropriate policies. By working to inform economic development planning, we can have better cities, better growth and a better climate.