More than 30,000 people from 167 countries descended on Quito, Ecuador last month for the third United Nations conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III). As the urban adaptation lead in USAID’s Global Climate Change Office, I was one of them.
Coming from an architectural and engineering background, I was pleased to see industry represented and yet struck by the immense opportunities and potential for the industry to play a greater role moving forward.
Engaging a broader community could help facilitate private sector financing for and new ways of thinking about climate-smart urban design.
Real estate developers and insurers are private sector actors who work closely with urban designers and are financially motivated to ensure the properties they back are climate resilient with low operating costs (i.e. energy efficient).
Also, investor confidence is higher in cities with strong, operationalized climate change action plans because such cities lower the risk of disruptions to economic productivity by ensuring power and water supplies stay on, employees can commute to work, and buildings stand tall.
Recognizing a great opportunity, USAID announced at Habitat III its commitment of more than $2 million to help cities finance sustainable infrastructure projects through the C40 Cities Finance Facility, building on USAID's existing urban climate change work in Mexico and Colombia.
Helping cities unlock all streams of finance – including private sector – facilitates turning climate change plans into action. Incentivizing the private sector to invest in what is traditionally considered public infrastructure, like grey and green infrastructure projects, creates a win-win all around.
Engaging urban designers in international development, and particularly in urban climate change programming, is critical. They bring a sophisticated perspective on integrated urban design that pervades the sometimes narrow thinking of development practitioners often bound to issue-specific funding sources.
Urban designers link to the private sector (e.g. real estate developers/owners and insurers) - a link that is only starting to be unearthed in the international development community designing urban climate change programs.
We can take a cue from Colombia. USAID’s Low Carbon Resilient Development Program is working with the U.S. Forest Service to develop an urban forest management plan for the city of Valledupar involving the use of web based tools like iTree Eco to quantify the benefits of ecosystem services provided by urban trees.
This work shows how the integrated management of our forested landscapes, within and beyond a city’s boundaries, contributes to compounded benefits such as the provision of potable water, flood and stormwater management, erosion control, reduced energy consumption and emissions, biodiversity protection, carbon storage and an improved public realm.
These ecosystem services illustrate systems-based thinking. And cities, commonly described as “systems of systems,” are ideal testbeds for deliberately applying this thinking to climate change programming.
By working across scales and disciplines -- for example, connecting individual street tree plantings with city-level storm water management systems or implementing building-level energy efficiency measures with distributed energy infrastructure -- urban designers might nudge development practitioners to think more creatively and flexibly about achieving maximum scale.
Though there are certainly ways for USAID to continue learning and tweaking its approaches, our urban climate change programs are comparatively robust. Through 12 programs in 13 countries, we work with cities to support energy efficiency in the building sector, improve urban planning, enable access to climate information for improved decision making, and unlock finance.
Cities with their ragged edges provide an opportunity to integrate climate change in programming. This means reducing emissions and climate-related risks and transforming underserved, untenable settlements into vibrant, healthy and productive urban spaces. The pursuit of sustainable urban development and climate action to meet countries’ climate commitments are inextricably linked. Exciting opportunities abound to carry this work forward.
Climatelinks is a global knowledge portal for USAID staff, implementing partners, and the broader community working at the intersection of climate change and international development. The portal curates and archives technical guidance and knowledge related to USAID’s work to help countries mitigate and adapt to climate change.