World Cities Day 2021 focused on “Adapting Cities for Climate Resilience”, a phrase that captures one of the most urgent imperatives of our era. The international observance of World Cities Day on October 31 every year is promoted by the United Nations under the general theme of “Betty City, Better Life”.
This year, the main goals were to increase awareness of climate change adaptation and urban resilience; to inspire effective climate action at the local level by sharing knowledge about effective urban systems resilience solutions; and to help achieve the sustainable development goals work towards meeting the Paris Agreement for Climate Change.
On top of climate change, cities are under constant pressure from the growth in the world’s population. Some 4.2 billion people, or 55% of the global population of 7.6 billion, already reside in cities. The Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates that another 2.5 billion people could move to cities by 2050, putting urbanisation at 68%.
Climate-resilient cities are no longer just a “nice to have”, but a necessity in quest of securing a sustainable future.
An integral part of the United Nations SDGs is the search for “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements”.
We need to recognise that land is a scarce resource, and that spatial planning has a key role in shaping the contemporary urban landscape. The sheer size of today’s cities means that a natural disaster such as an earthquake, hurricane or flood can put millions of lives at risk. Recent research into the Sydney CBD shows that, even in the absence of natural disasters, the human-scape and liveability considerations will be increasingly important as cities evolve.
“Resilience thinking” in planning is crucial. Urban planning and urban design need to respond to the increasing economic, environmental, social and spatial vulnerabilities in cities, in an attempt to bring a halt to environmental degradation and the rapid depletion of natural resources. We need planning structures and systems that will allow communities to adapt to change, and methods to explore the dynamics of the city and spatial systems in different ways.
This thinking is embedded in Australia’s National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, which calls for integrated and robust frameworks to be used “to assess and reduce disaster risk in all environments, but particularly infrastructure, land use and development planning”. It is also a guiding principle of the Smart Cities Plan, which guides action across various levels of government. The Smart Cities Plan encourages, for example, implementing traffic sensors to better understand road interactions and hazards and using this data to improve travel patterns.
Both Melbourne and Sydney are members of 100 Resilient Cities, a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century. Engagement with 100 Resilient Cities has helped fine-tune different metropolitan plans across the country for responding to both chronic stresses, including overtaxed or inefficient public transport systems, and acute shocks including earthquakes, floods and outbreaks of disease such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
From a governance perspective, there are City Deals in Australia, which are comprehensive approaches to city planning. City Deals are a partnership between the three levels of government and the community to work towards a shared vision for productive and liveable cities. An important part of City Deals is the logical management of the natural environment within cities and efforts to identify ways to foster sustainability. Investments and improvements in sustainability are seen in these partnering cities of Townsville, Launceston, Western Sydney, Darwin, Hobart, Geelong, Adelaide and Perth, as well as South East Queensland.
Solutions do not have to be grand scale. Embedding more green infrastructure into urban plans and increasing the tree canopy can help both mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Tree cover also prevents heat from the sun being trapped in hard surfaces and released at night, making city streets inhospitably hot. Similarly, expanding bike lanes can promote active living and reduce car usage. Melbourne is leading the way with its Bicycle Plan, which involves creating a connected bicycle network. Melbourne is also developing a “walking economy” through its 2030 Transport Strategy. Sydney is not far behind, with the Walking and Cycling Program delivering numerous projects that encourage more of both.
A resilience perspective places “adaptability” at the heart of successful governance. There is now an expanded scientific understanding that green spaces are beneficial to urban communities and cities and that ecological principles are a sine qua non for sustainable cities. Understanding the importance of green infrastructure, green spaces, ecosystem services and resource efficiencies underlies the possibility of sustainability and resilience within cities, and urban planners and urban designers will continuously seek out innovative solutions towards green(er) and more resilient cities.
Gabriela Quintana Vigiola
Gabriela Quintana Vigiola is an academic and consultant in the urban design and planning sectors and the Course Director of the UTS Online Master of Urban Planning and Master of Urban Design. She joined the University of Technology Sydney in 2012, and lectures in urban planning and urban design at the School of the Built Environment.
Jua (Juaneé) Cilliers is the current Head of School of Built Environment at the University of Technology Sydney (Australia) and Professor in Urban and Regional Planning. She is the Chairperson of the Women in Planning Network of the Commonwealth Association of Planners (CAP) and an advisor to the Board of the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP).