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Urban sustainability - the role of city policies and global collaboration

Cities By Callum Smith, Principal Engineer – 08 September 2023

A breathtaking view of Muscat, the capital city of Oman, nestled between rugged mountains and the sea


Callum Smith

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The article was originally published in the September issue of Construction Week Middle East.

The global population is urbanising at a rapid pace. As it stands, cities are currently home to over half the global population, a number expected to rise to 6.7 billion (or two-thirds of the global population) by 2050 according to the United Nations. This accelerated urban growth intensifies numerous challenges including the development of infrastructure, resource allocation, and climate change.

So why are city-level sustainable urban policies so important?

Not long ago, few national governments had policies explicitly labelled as 'urban'. Yet, because a majority of the global population reside in urban areas, most national domestic policies inherently carry significant urban implications (M.B. Teitz, 2001). Recognising the importance of urban-centric policies, over 150 countries have since established National Urban Policies (NUPs) in various forms.

These NUPs serve as a foundation from which city governance can further develop sustainable planning policies, addressing the unique challenges of urbanism. Echoing this sentiment, the United Nations' UN Habitats World Cities Report emphasises the urgent need for transformative policy action at all levels.

It's important to note, that while cities might not be authorities with 'legal' responsibilities under international climate accords like the COPs, their influence on global climate action is profound, as recognised within Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 11, sustainable cities and communities.

Urban areas are hotspots for innovation, economic activity, and population density, making them significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. In this context, sustainable city policies can have far-reaching effects, not just on the urban environments they immediately govern, but also on the broader climate landscape.

City-level policies, when executed through collaboration, hold the potential to help meet necessary standards and to create a thriving, sustainable global community. These city policies can ensure urban development meets the needs of residents without compromising future generations' ability to meet their own needs.

Demonstrating sustainable approaches through policy-driven action encompasses an array of areas, from promoting green infrastructure and clean energy, to ensuring access to basic services and promoting social inclusion.

While city-level policy creators have a substantial input, the role of city-level administrators, such as Chief Resilience Officers and Sustainability Officers, is pivotal in this regard. These officers act as crucial links between different cities, fostering collaboration, sharing knowledge, advocating for innovative solutions, and promoting best practices.

Resources like C40 Cities, Making Cities Resilient 2030 (MCR2030) and Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, bring these local leaders together in a shared forum, facilitating the transfer of successful strategies and lessons learned, thereby accelerating the global transition to sustainability.

Indeed, sustainability is a global challenge requiring a global solution. However, its successful implementation often depends on local actions. It is at the city level where policies meet people, where global goals encounter local realities, and where the vision of a sustainable future is brought to life. Hence, city-level sustainability policies are not just important - they are essential.

Global cities and MENA's position in urban sustainability

Several cities have implemented noteworthy sustainability policy plans. New York, for example, launched the ONeNYC plan in 2015, bringing together eight years’ worth of policy development, focusing on building a strong and equitable city through resilience, inclusivity, and sustainability. The London Plan 2021 underscores green infrastructure and waste reduction, while Copenhagen aims to be carbon-neutral by 2025.

The Middle East region will be one of the areas most strongly impacted by climate change. With water, food scarcity and extreme heat already prevalent in the region, it will be key for the region’s cities to find ways to equitably mitigate and adapt to the impacts of the changing climate on citizens and enhance overall resilience in their communities.

In light of these challenges, the Middle East's sustainability initiatives become even more crucial. Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 merges modern development with cultural heritage preservation, and the newly publicised Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan outlines the doubling of the green and recreational areas. The anticipated Greater Muscat Structural Plan due to be published in 2024 intends to emphasise sustainable and resilient urban development goals, representing another significant stride in the region's sustainability efforts.

City-level sustainability in the spotlight

At the upcoming COP28 conference, a 'global stocktake' is scheduled for the first time, aimed at evaluating the progress of nations towards their emissions reduction commitments, also known as 'nationally determined contributions' or NDCs, made under the Paris Agreement. Given the significant contribution of cities to global emissions, their strategic interventions and successes will inevitably shine a spotlight on how policies are affecting nation states’ commitments. With the most recent verdict by Jim Skea, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) expecting the review to show ‘how far off-track' the world is on climate goals.

So, city-level initiatives offer more than localised solutions; they provide valuable blueprints for crafting more extensive national and international sustainability strategies - and as COP28 approaches, the case studies of these cities become vital resources for broader national and global initiatives. Through combined efforts and a shared vision, sustainability should shift from being an abstract goal to an achievable target. Therefore, the global sustainability narrative becomes anchored not just in idealistic ambitions, but also in practical, city-led actions.