What Would a Thinking City do to Avoid Self-Destruction?

Giving up forests. Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2017). Image: The European Space Agency, CC BY-SA

 

 

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) of 1992 offers a compelling definition of ‘ecosystem’ as adynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit. ‘ (1)

It may be that a deeper understanding of ecosystems will unlock a door to an ongoing debate about cities and their impact on the natural environment in the age of climate change. To do so we need to conceptually place cities as part of the natural ecosystem so that both cities and nature could interact as a ‘functional unit’.

The World Economic Forum Global Risk Report 2019 (2) positions extreme weather events, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, natural disasters, water loss and biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and cyber-attacks at the forefront of global risks.

A majority of them are environmental risks, some are also societal and technological. However, they cannot be ignored if we consider Planet Earth as one overarching ecosystem. It may not matter for some whether we recycle domestic waste or use fewer or no plastic bags, but in the economy of Mother Nature and the overarching ecosystem — it does.

“…we need to conceptually place cities as part of the natural ecosystem so that both cities and nature could interact as a ‘functional unit’. “

 

Rebuilding the Relationship with Nature

Impacts of imbalances in the global environmental are felt in the deserts of the Sahel in Africa, the melting ice in Siberia for the first time in 40,000 years, which is destroying city infrastructure, and in the tragic food situation in South-East Asia.

The Paris Agreement Preamble (3) recognises:

the need for an effective and progressive response to the urgent threat of climate change on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge.

One can be totally lost in often impenetrable scientific statistics, which are as critically important as the evidence of apocalyptic changes we witness on our television screens or in communities we know.

This is why in parallel to the high-level debate, we need to find clues and methods of communication that can get us to regain an equilibrium between cities and their natural ecosystems.

One can argue that historically, indigenous builders got it right and that the built environment benefitted from socially-inclusive timber buildings, naturally ventilated with intricate ornamentation. More recently, an enormous amount of work has been accomplished by generations of climate change movements since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and we need to build our thinking about our relationship with nature with reference to what has already been done and accomplished to date.

For that reason, I convened a panel of experts at the recent United Nations Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference COP24, that took place between 3-14 December 2018 in Katowice, Poland. Thanks to the generosity of the Paris Committee on Capacity Building (PCCB) we were able to exchange ideas from different organisations working on urban and rural linkages. In other words, we evaluated how to re-connect cities and medium size or small towns to their natural ecosystems and what these connections could be.

Whilst various organisations and stakeholders looked at different aspects of this connectivity, all unanimously agreed that this connection needs to be re-established.

“we need to find clues and methods of communication that can get us to regain an equilibrium between cities and their natural ecosystems…how to re-connect cities and medium size or small towns to their natural ecosystems and what these connections could be. “
 Thar Desert India. Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2017). Image: The European Space Agency, CC BY-SA

 

Land Degradation

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), a framework for Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) (4), offers one of the best available frameworks today to begin to depict these complex relationships and dependencies between land use and the city.

While recognising that South East Asia and Malaysia are in the tropical rainforest climate, the principles and approaches apply.

There are several indicators that LDN recommends. These indicators include External Drivers such as climate change – shortage of water, sea levels and temperature increase, and Anthropogenic (man-made) pressures resulting from, for example, migration, pollution. Unsustainable forestry practices leading to Land Degradation process are also listed together with their impact on the Natural Capital and biodiversity loss on Ecosystems Services.

This in turn has a negative impact on recreation, tourism and limits Human Needs from social to safety and security needs.

It is a domino effect starting with a skyscraper and ending with the life of an insect pollinating food that inhabitants of the skyscraper need. There is an ecosystem of dependencies that are invisible, yet vital to sustain the life for city dwellers. Rainforest ecosystems, for example, enable the city to breathe fresh air and capture carbon, otherwise polluted air would be breathed in by its citizens.

 

 Berlin – ASAR – 6 January 2003. Image: The European Space Agency, CC BY-SA

 

So, what would the Thinking City do to avoid self-destruction, if the city could think by itself?

So, what would the Thinking City do to avoid self-destruction, if the city could think by itself?

Much is to do with its governance, legislation, planning and looking at the city also from the urban perspective.

UN-HABITAT has been exploring the relationship between urban and rural settlements since 1976 (5), and the Vancouver Action Plan (Habitat I). Various UN resolutions which followed, stressed the importance of the rural dimension of human settlements and the Member States committed in 2012 during the Rio +20 UN Conference:

To work towards improving the quality of human settlements, including the living and working conditions of both urban and rural dwellers in the context of poverty eradication so that all people have access to basic services, housing and mobility. (6)

The following years brought recognition of climate change and sustainable development in 2015, which manifested itself through the Agenda 2030 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement and the New Urban Agenda (Habitat III) in 2016.

Today, four years on from this milestone legislation signed by over one hundred and ninety countries, we are called to look deeper into its content and begin active implementation through cross-sectorial approaches.

In the context of urban and ecosystems connections we need to relate to two sustainable development targets:

11.A “Support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, per-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning”.

Together with:

15.3 “By 2030, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world”.

UN-HABITAT is in the process of developing “Urban-Rural Linkages to Advance Integrated Territorial Development: Guiding Principles and Framework for Action” due to be operational in the future. Multi-stakeholder engagement and consultation resulted in Guiding Principles for global adaptation. Amongst them are: spatial, functional and environmental integration as well as governance and socially-inclusive and participatory partnerships.

If only the Thinking City could think by itself, then it seems that the apocalyptic picture of the future of our Planet could be reversed. It might even be that the World Economic Forum Global Risk Report 2030, may see changes in prioritising environmental and social risks that are ultimately affecting the poorest populations. The call and tools for action are in our hands.

London, 25th January 2019

Footnotes:

(1) The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBC) Art 2, p3

(2) The World Economic Forum Global Risk Report 2019

(3) The Paris Agreement Preamble p.21

(4) The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN)

(5) UN-HABITAT Implementing the New Urban Agenda by Strengthening Urban-Rural Linkages p.9 (6) Rio +20 UN Conference Outcome ‘The Future We Want’

 


 

Dr Sandra Piesik is an architect and a researcher specialising in technology development and transfer. As the founder of several multidisciplinary research groups and consortia, she is actively engaged in addressing global climate change. She was co-creator of the Urban and Rural Resilience Programme for desert regions and participated in the COP22 UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakech and most recently at the United Nations Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference COP24.