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City Leaders Need The Courage To Build Sustainable Urban Centres

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A billion more people will be living in cities the next time a gavel opens the bi-decennial UN conference on housing and sustainable urban development, known as UN-Habitat (hint -- that will be in 20 years). Following this week's proceedings in Quito, Ecuador, cities will face two significant challenges between now and the next meeting in 2036.

The first is coping with the inexorable trend towards urbanization. By 2036, over 60 per cent of the world's population will reside in cities. The burgeoning number of urban dwellers worldwide will put pressure on city governments in areas ranging from housing to services, infrastructure to transportation.

The second challenge is the need to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) while adapting to rising temperatures. Cities are responsible for 70 per cent of the world's GHGs, so will be on the frontlines to mitigate emissions. At the same time, located close to major water bodies as most are, cities are vulnerable to flooding and rising sea levels, requiring climate adaptation investments.

As a former diplomat, I have had the opportunity to experience cities around the world with drastically varying conditions -- large and small, rich and poor, coastal and landlocked, peaceful and violent. Yet, despite these differences, I have seen cities across this spectrum successfully preparing for continued population growth while increasing climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.

As a current Ottawa city councillor, I've learned that if pursued effectively, such approaches can work to improve economic opportunities, social equity and health outcomes for citizens -- priorities that all cities work to achieve. The following 10 actions represent a good place to start building sustainable cities:
Ensuring city dwellers have the choice to take efficient and affordable transit is critical.

1. Invest in a broad network of dedicated transit corridors

Ensuring city dwellers have the choice to take efficient and affordable transit is critical. This means investing in separate transit corridors, be they underground (subways) or separate surface travel lanes while ensuring fares are affordable for all users.

2. Provide robust walking and cycling infrastructure

The benefits of active transportation are many -- from better public health outcomes to lower road costs, less pollution to shorter commuting and travel times. In many urban contexts, cycling is the fastest way to get around, averaging 5 km/h, faster than driving or transit during congested periods.

3. Utilize tools to encourage affordable, mid-rise housing

By taking steps to ensure new housing includes affordable units, cities not only help low-income residents but encourage mixed socio-economic neighbourhoods, contributing to equity. Mid-rise development done well can support good density while maintaining a human scale and relationship to the street.

4. Plan urban growth to build up, not out

Without a strong urban boundary that stops urban sprawl, the costs of building and maintaining infrastructure goes up, residents spend more time commuting and opportunities for greater density are missed.

5. Implement flexible, mixed-use zoning

Zoning rules that allow commercial and residential uses to coexist are more likely to provide space for family and home based businesses to prosper, resulting in employment as well as local shops and services that obviate the need to drive further afield.

6. Support greater renewable energy production and reduced consumption

Municipally backed loans to residents and building owners who wish to invest in energy efficiency or renewable energy production can be structured to keep monthly re-payments equal to the energy savings and tie the loan to the property, increasing take-up.

7. Build attractive, accessible and green public spaces

From children's playgrounds to adult fitness equipment, table tennis to benches, good public space provides activities and social opportunities for all ages, mental respite from the concrete jungle, and greenery to serve as urban lungs.

8. Design climate-minded infrastructure

Permeable pavement, natural swales, boulevard soak-pits and robust tree canopies are examples of urban infrastructure that can both promote greenhouse gas mitigation and help cities build resilience to extreme weather events such as flooding and droughts.

9. Develop ambitious waste reduction targets

Municipal composting and recycling programs are a good start but cities also need to tackle consumer packaging and introduce education and other strategies to incent compliance and aid enforcement.

10. Promote local food production

By facilitating community gardens and urban agriculture, cities can do their part to lower the carbon footprint of food production while creating options for economic development and affordable groceries.

We need cities to be successful in providing for growing urban populations while working to shrink their carbon footprints if the ambitious targets of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change -- poised to come into force next month -- have any chance to be met. While the actions provided here are far from exhaustive, they illustrate the kind of steps that are needed to avoid hand-wringing when UN-HABITAT meets again in 20 years. In the meantime, the responsibility lies with me and my fellow municipal leaders across the globe to demonstrate the required political courage to act.

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