INSIGHTS

Explore the latest insights from practitioners and scholars in the urban resilience field.

Urban soil decontamination for citizens’ health


2021-03-30

Pollution is one of the most significant environmental challenges worldwide; according to the European Environmental Agency, the management of polluted land costs about 6.5 billion€ a year in Europe alone.

article originally published in UIA

Contamination with heavy metals, in particular (HM), represents a real health concern. Accordingly, urban ecosystems face severe problems that affect the health and quality of life of the population.

Baia Mare City is the capital of the Maramures county from the north-western part of Romania. The city is located in the valley formed along the Sasar River, which lies between the Somes Plateau and the Eastern Carpathian Mountains. The volcanic rocks in the nearby mountain massifs contain gold-silver ores and non-ferrous metals such as lead, zinc, copper, etc. Historically, this was a metallurgical area, but the city is currently transitioning from its past as Romania’s mining capital towards a new sustainable social, economic, and environmental development model. However, although the city and its citizens are ready to move on into a new socio-economic era, the metallurgical legacy persists in the form of heavy metal pollution of the environment that significantly affects local ecosystems and human health in the urban area. Thus, currently about 627 hectares of contaminated land (5 times over the acceptable limits) are awaiting a solution.

In this context, SPIRE (Smart Post-Industrial Regenerative Ecosystem Project) proposes sustainable land use and integrated nature-based solutions aimed at inspiring action and re-claiming several polluted sites. The project integrates Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) and phytoremediation strategies into urban design and city planning, potentially providing a model for other European cities that still bear the burden of their industrial past.

Public health consequences from pollution
The public health consequences of pollution are severe. Compared to the average life expectancy in the Romanian population, in Baia Mare, the life expectancy 2.2 years less; also, the overall mortality index is 10-15% higher; D2 deficiency is 65-95% higher, and the frequency of metabolic diseases caused by lead pollution is 40-60% higher.

Past extractions at the Sasar mine have caused pollution of the environment: surface and underground water, air and soil pollution.

• The water pollution is due to chemical substances and solid suspension particles; furthermore, rain and groundwater, contaminated after contact with the abandoned mines, runs off into the river without pre-treatment, causing permanent damage to Sasar river and its tributaries.
• The air pollution is caused by the gases coming from oxidizing and burning of the minerals from the tailing ponds; this contamination is extremely harmful to human health, crops, and vegetation.
The soil pollution is due to the accumulation of many heavy metals (HM) in the ground, which leads to the inhibition of bacteria activity and a decrease of nutrient mobility in the soil, affecting flora and fauna in the area.

Exposure to high levels of air pollution can cause a variety of adverse health effects, amongst them an increase in the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. Short and long-term exposure to air pollutants is associated with poor health outcomes. More severe consequences affect people who are already ill; children, the elderly, and the poor are more susceptible. The most harmful pollutants – closely associated with excessive premature mortality – are fine PM2.5 particles that penetrate deep into the lungs’ passageways. Although air quality in Baia Mare area has generally improved over the last years, the adverse health effects of particulate air pollution, even at relatively low levels, remain a public health concern.

Fig. 1: Questionnaire Results of Citizens’ Perception of Environmental Pollution Risks. Source: SPIRE Desk analysis, Research repository & Awareness appraisal report.

Thanks to a field visit in Baia Mare in November 2019, the SPIRE project team launched several semi-structured or open interviews with local citizens. We can see in Figure 2 how citizens perceive the threats to personal health posed by soil and water contamination. However, concerning the fear of contracting a pollution-related illness, around 20,5% of respondents agree or strongly agree, while circa 43% strongly disagree or disagree.

Environmental pollution studies on the risk groups for lead, cadmium, and arsenic pollution have shown concentrations of pollutants in the human body that exceed the reference levels. The lead indicator – lead in the blood is the main parameter to indicate the concentration of lead in the human body – explains the increased incidence rates of specific morbidity in respiratory, digestive, renal, endocrine, and metabolic disease.

Heavy Metals (HM) soil contamination
Humans have used heavy metals for thousands of years. The mercury compound cinnabar (HgS) was used in prehistoric cave paintings for its red colours. Metallic mercury (as well as white lead) was known in ancient Greece, where it was used for lightening the skin. Since ancient times lead (Pb) was used for pottery glazing while mercury (Hg) was attributed medicinal properties. Ancient Romans used lead acetate as wine sweetener. In past centuries, hatmakers commonly cured felt using mercurous nitrate through inhalation of mercury vapours; over time, they developed specific symptoms that gave rise to the nickname “mad hatter.”

Awareness of the danger heavy metals pose for the environment, and human health has been gradual. Various public health measures have been undertaken to control, prevent and treat metal toxicity occurring at various levels, such as occupational exposure, accidents, and environmental factors. Metal toxicity depends upon the absorbed dose, the route of exposure, and the duration of exposure.

Among heavy metals, some play a metabolic role in living organisms (microorganisms, plants, humans) but only in minimal doses. Cu, Zn, Co, Ni, and Fe are essential for the survival and growth of microbes. However, these metals can exhibit toxicity at higher concentrations and can render specific proteins inactive. Cu, Se, and Zn are also reported to play important and beneficial roles in human metabolism in small doses. Some metals such as Pb, Hg, and Cd do not play a biological function in living organisms. These toxic metals accumulate within cells and may negatively affect enzyme selectivity, deactivate cellular processes, and damage the DNA structure that may result in cell death. In general, the toxicity effects of heavy metals for living systems are dose-dependent.

The toxicity of heavy metals in humans can disrupt or damage the mental and central nervous system, harm lungs, kidneys, liver, and other vital organs. Long-term exposure of human populations to HM has also shown physical, muscular, and neurological impairments.


Fig 3: Cuprom chimney, Baia Mare. Source: Turn Combinat Baia Mare. https://youtu.be/MQbQEtcOhRs

Heavy metal contamination poses an environmental concern because it can persist in urban soils for decades. Heavy metal pollution of soil leads to accumulation in plant tissues and eventual phytotoxicity symptoms. In Baia Mare, air circulation has a specific pattern determined by the influence of this region’s orography and the atmospheric calm present here. These conditions favoured the high concentrations of heavy metals in the former industrial areas of Romplumb and Cuprom. After closing these two sources of atmospheric pollution, the air became less polluted, but the soil remained highly contaminated.

Nature-based Solutions and Phytoremediation
There is now an increasing need for innovative, sustainable, affordable, and integrated solutions to soil pollution in Europe. One Nature-Based Solutions (NSB) to the contamination with heavy metals is phytoremediation. Phytoremediation techniques can provide an effective way to restore large areas confronted with soil and water polluted by human activities, constituting a cost-effective and ecological alternative to physical remediation methods, less environmentally friendly and financial efficient.

Phytoremediation is a green technology that relies on plants to mitigate pollutants from the environment. This method is cheap compared to traditional ones and enjoys broad public acceptance. Phytoremediation technology is classified into the following categories: phytoextraction, rhizofiltration, phytostabilization, phytovolatilization, phytodegradation. Not all plants are suitable for phytoremediation. Also, not all are equally efficient. Thus, plant selection has to be carefully made.

Fig 4: Phytoextraction. Source: Based in drawings from Lundén F. – Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. The Landscape Architect Program Alnarp –.

Through phytoextraction, heavy metals are translocated and taken up by certain plant species and stored in various plant organs (both above ground and underground). Repeated disposal of biomass can speed up the decontamination process. The harvested biomass can have different concentrations of heavy metals, depending on the level of contamination. Market opportunities for the safe valorisation of biomass contribute to extending this technology on a larger scale. To achieve this, the selection of plant species has to be considered, besides the heavy metal extraction and accumulation capacity, the potential economic value (energy crops, pulp-paper crops, timber trees, or ornamentals). Biomass is used to obtain safe essential oils, energy (thermal, electric), biofuels, biochar, and organic acids with various uses.

SPIRE attempts to develop, deploy, and test innovative and ground-breaking Nature-Based Phytoremediation Solutions across some key strategic pilot sites. The main challenges currently open are:

• testing phytoremediation technics to remove HM from the soil and generate non-toxic new biomaterials and biofuels.

• examining how phytostabilization technics are improving air quality

• assessing species plantation to be applied in different sites.

• evaluating species diversity (types and percentage) after remediation.

Over the next few years, the implementation and testing on the ground of all the proposed techniques and measures will demonstrate the validity and replicability of SPIRE’s innovative approach.

 

Bibliography and References
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3.Coman et al., (2010). Heavy Metal Soil Pollution – Specific issues for Baia Mare area, Available at: http://journals.usamvcluj.ro/index.php/promediu/article/view/4833

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5.Condor A. (2014). From brownfield to greenfield. Major ecological imbalances in Baia Mare. Săsar mine reclamation and reconversion. Available at: http://studiageographia.geografie.ubbcluj.ro/docs/file/2_2014/Condor.pdf

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10.Jaishankar et al. (2014) Toxicity, mechanism and health effects of some heavy metals. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4427717/

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15.Phytoremediation (2013), Available at: https://www.geoengineer.org/education/web-class-projects/cee-549-geoenvironmental-engineering-winter-2013/assignments/phytoremediation

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20.Leopa, S. (2020). Standards and Key Performance Indicators for Smart Post-Industrial Regenerative Ecosystems. SPIRE – Smart Post-Industrial Regenerative Ecosystem, Technical Report D4.3.2, DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.33583.56481(D.4.3.2, Standards and Key Performance Indicators for Smart Post-Industrial Regenerative Ecosystems)

21.Verga P. L., Onesciuc N., Mihaiescu T., Plesa A., 2020 State of play in Baia Mare. Desk analysis, Research repository & Awareness appraisal. Bioflux Publishing House, Cluj-Napoca. Online edition, ISBN 978-606-8887-75-3. (D.4.3.3., State of play in Baia Mare – Desk analysis, Research repository & Awareness appraisal)

22.Verga P. L. (ed.), Onesciuc N., Mihaiescu T., Plesa A., Vajda B., Sebestyen T., Pop S., Ghise C. R., Ghise C. I., Pop A. M., 2020 SPIRE Baia Mare: State of the Art / Innovation Landscape Report. Bioflux Publishing House, Cluj-Napoca. Online edition, ISBN 978-606-8887-73-9. (D.4.3.1, State of the Art Innovation Landscape Report)

23.Vidican et al., 2020a, https://journals.usamvcluj.ro/index.php/promediu/article/view/13859

24.Vidican et al., 2020b, https://journals.usamvcluj.ro/index.php/promediu/article/view/13858

Amaia Celaya Alvarez
Urban Resilience expert UN-Habitat, European Commission.

Envisioning the “15-minute city” in specific contexts


2021-03-23

Cities are home to sixty per cent of the world’s population. Any threat to life and living in cities, such as natural calamities and exigencies and the current pandemic, has wide-spread repercussions on urban communities. This piece suggests that any urban policy dedicated to post-pandemic recovery must be particularly attentive to specific contexts and nations as it strives for social equity and inclusiveness.

Much has changed and continues to change as the world grapples with climate change, pollution and, more recently, the pandemic. More people are working from home, and there is less use of building space and public transit. In countries like India, the way many cities were planned, the educational institutions and business centers are built away from the residential areas. Per some estimates, a person spends 7% of the day commuting to work.

Impact on policy
The impact of changes in urban centers has been felt in the realm of urban policy as well.
In many countries and prior to the pandemic, the focus was on neoliberal economics, profit making and economic growth regardless of the cost to people and the environment. There is concurrence on leading with green and inclusive jobs, providing public services and giving public space back to people and nature. Additionally, there is a renewed recognition of imperatives that would shape recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. A commitment was made to address the root causes of pre-existing economic inequalities, providing social protection and equitable participation in the labor force to marginalized populations. In taking action for health and well-being of urban communities, and borrowing from initiatives in France, the mayors committed to a “15-minute city.” Through this initiative, consideration is given to places where residents can truly live locally, with everything they need just a short walk or bike ride away. In other words, a template has been provided for cities around the world that will help in prioritizing their focus on equity, green recovery and community-centric planning. Overall, the “15-minute city” promises to improve quality of life and reduce carbon footprints.

Ongoing and new imperatives
There are a couple of concerns related to urban policy and planning with specific relevance to current events. The first being that there are ongoing policies such as developing “smart cities” that may not have completely come to fruition. Five Indian cities, namely Delhi, Jaipur, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai, that are included among the C40 cities are also smart cities. There are certainly differences but there are overlaps too between smart cities and the C40 agenda and often seems like one merges into the other. While the C40 addresses the need to rebuild cities long-term and recognizes the shift from “mobility” to “accessibility” to basic amenities and services taking into account the current pandemic and climate change issues; smart cities leverage technology to develop, deploy, and promote sustainable development practices to address growing urbanization challenges.

Jaipur for instance, one of the “smart cities” in India promotes urban smart living through sustainable and inclusive processes. Construction of selected roads is ongoing as part of the smart city mission, but this has come at a cost. Buildings and land were acquired from traders, farmers respectively so that smart aspects of the plans can be implemented. Protest marches were organized by those who were evicted or displaced. Similar situations have presented themselves in Delhi where farm land was acquired with inadequate compensation. Foreign investment in urban planning has added another dimension that takes away the ostensible “people-centric” focus. Contributions to the large-scale technological hardwiring has been provided by corporate bodies in US, Japan, UK.
In fact, technology has been rolled out to monitor urban landscapes but has also resulted in increased citizen surveillance. And yet in another sense technology has helped in responding to emergencies during the pandemic in monitoring spread and contagion. Digitization has helped white collar professionals to perform their work through tele-working but excludes the majority of population due to the nature of their work. Many workers and families do not have a stable internet connection for home.

Equity and urban planning
A second concern is that the C40 outlines and promotes mixed use development, robust public spaces. Most Indian cities have a long history of mixed land use. Delhi’s urban landscape is replete with examples of artisan shops thriving with attached residential spaces. The Master plan (2021) also envisages a mixed land use patterns in selected areas of the city. Parts of the city are walkable and is used as such by many of its residents. What complicates the issue is that not all neighborhoods are equal. And the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the disproportionate effect on vulnerable communities.

Maids, laborers, masons, gardeners who serve in the informal sector are often migrants. Their homes are squatter settlements on the periphery of affluent neighborhoods and cities. These populations make long commutes to their places of work and a 15-minute city does not work for them if urban planning does not focus on affordable housing. Post lockdown as a result of the pandemic, in March 2020, migrant workers were stranded across the country as they made their way on foot from urban dwellings to their homes in far flung rural areas and across state boundaries. Lack of income and health support put these populations in dire and traumatic conditions. Inherent and historically induced mixed use planning comes with strengths and drawbacks. While collectively these neighborhoods provide space albeit in urban peripheries, they suffer from cumulative deprivations of shelter, basic amenities, access to healthcare, water, and security of life and tenure. Any urban planning in India will need to start at these sites – the space that supports the economy of the city.

While globally, there are shifts in paradigm in the sense of responding to urgencies, many countries are still grappling with the stalled prior policies. Unlike megacities around the world, in India there is much to be done before we achieve these goals especially as we consider building and improving cities where proximity is a given and not necessarily a choice.

Publishing articles on the Urban Resilience Hub does not imply endorsement by UN-Habitat. The Urban Resilience Hub is a collaborative platform where all voices are welcome, a space that enables different conversations by echoing the authors’ ideas. We aim for the positive recognition of multiple views that integrate cities, people, knowledge, capabilities, and technology.

Rajashree Ghosh
Resident Scholar, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, USA

Singing Through the Rubble, Katia Gives Hope.


2021-03-08

“Nobody was ready to receive the blow of (Hurricane) Lota. Everything was gone. I got lost in the destroyed streets.”

Katia Bowie and her children sheltered for 10 hours in their house for hurricane Iota to pass, hearing how 100-year-old trees rolled down the mountains and streets. The Category-5 hurricane razed the small Colombian island of Providencia on November 16, 2020 to the ground. Providencia had never experienced such terrifying power: the devastating winds destroyed 98% of the island’s infrastructure, swept away the hospital, hotels, schools, offices, and a large part of the vegetation. The island now had a skyline of rubble.

The next morning, Katia crawled out onto the street and saw her clothes and other belongings scattered around. The ceiling and parts of the wall of her home had flown away. Her home, the neighbourhood and “the island” were now memories. Despite the devastating situation, Katia was fortunate her worst fear had not come to pass: her children were safe.

Lota remembered the community of Providencia of their vulnerability. The first days were the hardest; non-stop rain poured through roofs which no longer covered the inhabitants. Outbreaks of pneumonia and dengue soon followed as well as increasing COVID-19 cases, whilst the hospital was down. Katia and her family survived the initial devastation, but she knew the next challenge was to hold and continue.

Family members of Katia were forced to travel to the hospital daily to get a medicine they would normally store in their fridge. The families of the neighbourhood shared a power-plant to alleviate electricity problems, prioritizing charging their cell phones and incidentally powering their fans to not perish in the hot sunny days. Katia Bowie too did not give up and believed in a better future for her two children and her community. She created a space that connected the inhabitants of Providencia with the incoming volunteers and other parties involved in reconstruction.

Katia believes her family and the inhabitants of Providencia can rebuild their paradise better than before. The tall singer and theatre actress quickly became a beacon of hope for her neighbours. Moved by the conviction that everyone contributes to a better future, Katia started singing lyrics of hope in the remains of her patio, giving energy and strength of mind to all of her community.

“I raised my voice for a better tomorrow. I wanted to remind my people that they are strong. I know we will enjoy our beaches, cultivate our gardens and go fishing again.”
(more…)

Andrés Romero
Documentary Photographer

Urban Health the new core skill for urban planners


2021-02-04

The impact of COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of our habitat and urbanism model. Five decades of investing in the entrepreneurship of cities to make them more attractive on the global market have left behind the essentials of any habitat: protect and take care of its inhabitants. The planning of habitats that put wellbeing and health at the centre requires urban planning that incorporates environmental and social plans. Such holistic urban planning requires new professionals with a cross-disciplinary background.

The economic crisis at the beginning of the century prioritised economic response in European cities. The urgent was to create or strengthen urban infrastructures to allow the flow of trade, even if this meant weakening the welfare state and increasing social inequalities. Furthermore, we have generally dedicated many more resources to regaining the business competitiveness of the city, than the recovery of the social network and liveability parameters.

The turn of the century also imposed a change of motto, moving from the Brundtland report’s “Sustainable Development” to “Resilience”. A term used by the United Nations in 2005 at the Hyogo Risk Reduction Conference and defined by UN-Habitat as “the measurable ability of any urban system, with its inhabitants, to maintain continuity through all shocks and stresses, while positively adapting and transforming toward sustainability.” As a result, the aim was embodied in SDG 11 “Making Cities and Human Settlements Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable”.

As with the term “sustainable development”, the “resilience of cities” has ended up taking a sectoral approach, aimed only at the capacity to survive and adapt to adverse weather events or specific disasters, i.e., focused on risk management and civil protection. This approach to urban resilience serves us for low-intensity disasters.

Despite causing almost twice as many deaths as the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, environmental pollution did not make as many headlines. Moreover, this is not an isolated incident; it has been going on for more than ten years. Imagine a whole decade with four Bosnian wars a year. Are we asking cities to be resilient to a shock or to know how to adapt to a more fluctuating reality and less static and predictable scenarios? The European Commission has already begun to introduce the idea of the “resilient community”, one that is cohesive, inclusive and with few inequalities, and therefore able to adapt better to possible shocks and disruptive events. Now let me rephrase the old, but not worn-out, environmental statement, “if we want a resilient city, we need a healthy community”!

 

Based on the WHO definition for Health; a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, a health care system alone is not enough to achieve healthy communities, we need a better environment. And urban planning can no longer ignore the impact it has on the health of citizens. It determines the urban environment which affects our lifestyle positively or negatively.

The cities where we live, the way we move and the air we breathe are the 50% of the so-called health determinants –the most important elements that have an impact on our Health–, whereas only the 11% of these determinants are related to our health care system. Urban environments often encourage sedentary lifestyles, which contribute to major health problems such as obesity and cardiovascular diseases. These environments can also promote dependence on vehicles, which are often fossil-fuelled, causing negative environmental impacts such as air and noise pollution. They can also be less obvious consequences, such as the influence of urban transport on the isolation of individuals and lack of social cohesion.

Some examples illustrate this issue. In 2014, more than half of the European population suffered from obesity or were overweight. In 2018, air pollution caused 4.4 million deaths and more than 80% of the urban population breathes air containing more PM2.5 particles than recommended by the WHO. Worldwide, noise pollution increased by 17 per cent the chance of cardiovascular illnesses, leading to 10,000 premature deaths every year.

In high- and middle-income countries, urban planning, infection control and immunisation have minimised death attributed to infectious diseases such as smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis and cholera which were the main causes of urban deaths in the XIX century. Nowadays, non-communicable diseases (NCD) labelled lifestyle diseases or Urban Health Penalty are the most common causes of death. Namely, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, respiratory diseases, neuro-mental illness, digestive illness and certain types of cancers. These urban penalties are particularly severe in people who struggle with social inequalities.

20% of deaths from natural causes could be delayed every year by meeting the recommendations of the WHO regarding minimum daily physical activity, exposure to air pollution, noise and heat, and access and proximity to green spaces. On the same topic, the Joint Research Centre -the Commission’s science and knowledge service- identified urban health as one of the challenges for the Century and calls for urban planning to become a tool that improves health and well-being.

We have been facing a growing dilemma. Our urbanism was created, above all, to prevent the emergence and spread of communicable infectious diseases which had decimated the European population in the nineteenth century, such as cholera, typhus and dysentery, among others. The model worked initially and allowed exponential growth of population and cities, yet it has not been adapted to the 21st Century. Urbanism did not adapt well to the invasion of the private vehicle nor to climate change. And now the coronavirus has exposed the weaknesses of the urbanism model, increasing the lack of liveability of cities.

We need to put people at the centre of urban policies. Cities are our habitat and should provide us with the basis for a full and healthy life. The COVID-19 lockdowns have made us aware of the value of proximity and the importance of the neighbourhood scale. The crisis is forcing us to rethink many aspects of our current way of life. Well-being no longer depends on the vehicle reaching our dining room or the number of shopping centres within reach. The new well-being means living in a city that enables us to have a healthier lifestyle with an unpolluted environment that offers everything we need for daily life, green facilities and jobs within a 15-minute radius of home.

A vigorous 30-minute walk in a natural environment, five days a week, can reduce the risks of heart attack and strokes by 20-30 %, of diabetes by 30-40%, of hip fractures by 36-68%, of bowel cancer by 30 %, and of breast cancer by 20. Each Tree we plant breaks down 6 Kl of CO2 – and extra 10 kg of CO2 from power plants in summer- and retain 20 Kg of dust per year. A blue space acts as an air cooler with an action range of more than one kilometre. Do our city planners and urban managers know this? Has anyone taught them? Are they aware that the location of junk food establishments increases or decreases their consumption?

To make the city we advocate a reality, new professional profiles and new technical skills are needed to know how to work with concepts such as ecology, health, social and territorial cohesion and gender. Subjects that for generations have not been central to the studies of urban planning professionals. Encouragingly, these topics are now incorporated into specialisation courses such as the postgraduate programme on “Urban planning and Health” by the Polytechnic University of Catalonia-University of Vic (UPC-UVIC).

It seems that some short-term impacts are going to be temporary or even permanent and will need medium and long-term planning to face them. This calls for a drastic transformation of the teams that plan our cities. We must walk away from the traditional silo-ed teams and opt for multidisciplinary teams that incorporate health professionals, urban anthropologists, big data managers, among others.

We cannot longer plan the city of the 21st century with a ruler & bevel. The planning of future cities must manage an ever-growing complexity and bring the pursuit of the common good and, the health and well-being of people back to the centred of urbanism.

 

Main image: © UN-Habitat Nepal

Eloi Juvillà and Marta Rofin
Architects and coordinators of the Urban planning and Health postgraduate course by UPC- UVIC

Building Resilient Cities–Not Tomorrow, But Now


2020-05-05

It’s not easy. Globally, humanity is enduring one of the most difficult moments in decades. The experience is particularly bewildering for younger generations, who have never encountered challenge of this magnitude before. 

We are all forced to take this pandemic seriously to stop the spread of the virus. The necessary measures to accomplish this imperative–from curfews and quarantines, to lockdowns that are unprecedented in scope and duration–will have immense consequences. The damage to global, national and local economies is readily apparent. There are also other less tangible consequences, including the psychological impact of giving up our freedom of movement and the fear that potentially authoritarian governments could use the crisis as an opportunity to increase control. 

It is also frightening to witness how easily systems and even communities seem to be “deconstructed” in front of our eyes.  While the sky, seas, rivers are clearer, and wildlife, relishing the lack of noise, vehicles, contamination and human presence, is venturing out into spaces that were dangerous just weeks before; the financial markets, our human “empires”, are diminishing rapidly. Humanity should seize this opportunity for collective reflection.

Building resilient cities. Somewhat counterintuitively, what most people visualize when they think of a city is the infrastructure–the bridges, buildings, streets–the “lights” of the city as some economist used to say.  This conception is counterintuitive because all of these structures were preceded and created by people, for people. Like our infrastructure, efforts to build more resilient cities must also be by people, for people. 

For this reason, the city resilience approach that UN-Habitat has developed is based on the social aspects and governance capacity (or lack of) in cities.  The objective of diagnosing urban systems’ capacities is meaningless if the exercise doesn’t go hand in hand with an effort to understand humanity, in this case the inhabitants of the city.  The ultimate objective is to improve the living conditions of the population while maximizing resources and preserving natural resources. A healthy city provides the best quality of life for the most people.

The world’s population grew from two billion to over seven and a half billion over the course of the last half century. The physical space of the globe did not expand. Now, the same space that only fifty years ago supported two billion people must somehow accommodate triple that amount. More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. This means that some four billion people are living together in cities. If current trends continue–and there is no solid reason to believe they will not–by the close of the current century there will be more than eleven billion humans on earth. 

I’ve been asked many times recently about the value of compact cities in light of the current pandemic. Without doubt measures such as self-isolation, staying indoors and practicing social distancing are more difficult in a very compact city setting. However, compact cities do provide benefits even in a crisis such as this, for example access to basic services and medical care. Compact cities are also, regardless of any one individual’s feelings about the matter, the cities of the future given the world’s exponential population growth.  Given this reality, we must act now to plan better, more sustainable and resilient cities. 

Urban planning is a technical and political tool and process that, when done well, is the best way to reduce risk. The idea is simple: we must ensure that, while developing the cities of the present, we consider the cities of the future and the potential shocks and stresses the future may bring, such as the one that we are living through now.   

The compact city concept promotes relatively high residential density with mixed land uses. It is based on efficient mobility and has an urban layout that encourages walking and cycling, the maximization of energy consumption and reduced negative environmental impact. The benefits of a well-planned compact city include shorter commute times, cleaner air, and reduced noise and the consumption of fossil fuels and energy. 

Lessons hopefully learned.  My hope is that the COVID-19 pandemic crisis awakens us to the fragility in which we all live. That fragility is not solely attributable to the direct effect of the illness; rather, the virus is revealing weaknesses in the systems we have built. We all live in the same world, everything is interconnected. Probably (hopefully) that is more evident in a city, where all urban systems depend and reinforce each other. As the COVID-19 crisis has made painfully clear, a pandemic impacts us all. North, South, East and West, we must come together to advocate, plan and build resilient cities, not tomorrow, but now.   

Esteban León
Head of City Resilience Global Programme, United Nations Human Settlments Programme (UN-Habitat)

The Potentials and Gaps of City-Led Climate Adaptation


The last week of September was a pivotal one for the future of climate politics. While images of emotional speeches and worldwide strikes disseminated across the global media, politicians gathered at the United Nations in a series of events intended to draw the next steps towards the global development goals, among which the fight against climate change stands out.

UN Photo/Cia Pak: Climate Action Summit 2019

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Ivan Werneck S. Bassères
Research Assistant - Global Cities Programme at Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB )

Resilience and Typhoons


The Batanes Islands (Philippines) are known as the most resilient in the Pacific. This remote and beautiful archipelago is surrounded by seas and frequented by typhoons. For its population, resilience is as ingrained in life as the wind and rain.

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Verónica Sánchez Carrera
nUNDO

Smart Cities: Why One Size Does Not Fit All


13 May 2019

The Habitat III Conference’s New Urban Agenda provides for a “paradigm shift” for pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The new call for “safe, resilient, sustainable and inclusive cities” remains path highly dependent technology and corporate managerial solutions (e.g. smart cities), and institutional frameworks that often are not relevant to the particular city.

(source: 123RF)

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Rajashree Ghosh
Resident Scholar; Womens Studies Research Center

Blue-Green Infrastructure for Climate Change Adaptation in Peru


Combining nature and semi-natural structures for urban water provision and risk reduction in the Peruvian basins.

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Wetlands International

Migration and Gender in Resilience Planning: are we doing enough?


26th November 2018

Today’s global socio-economic conjuncture is characterized by urban transformations, the growth of cities, mass human displacement, and deep social inequalities. This article suggests that urban planning is a crucial factor for navigating this articulation, for better or for worse.

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João Paulo Tavares Coelho de Freitas
Doctoral Fellow, United Nations University

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