ECO2 Cities: Q & A with Abha Joshi Ghani, Manager of Urban Development

May 12, 2010

The lifestyle associated with cities is a key driver of global warming yet cities also offer the best means for slowing it, according to the Little Green Data Book 2009, released last month at the 17th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. The World Bank’s Manager of Urban Development, Abha Joshi Ghani, looks at some of the challenges facing our rapidly urbanizing world, and offers a vision for the model city of the future.

How big a problem is the pollution caused by cities?

Cities use 70 percent of the world’s energy and related resources, such as coal, oil and natural gas, the main causes of greenhouse gas emissions. They also consume more than 80 percent of the agricultural products and timber harvested in rural areas. But it’s the consumption oriented lifestyle of residents, not cities themselves, that leads to pollution. Interestingly, people who live in city centers tend to use fewer resources and generate less waste than their suburban neighbors. A resident of New York, for example, produces about a third the greenhouse gas emissions of a resident of a more spread-out city like Denver.

Is discouraging the growth of cities an option?

No. With more than half of their GDP coming from cities , the economic future of most developing countries will be determined by the productivity of these burgeoning urban populations. There is also an increasing recognition of the benefits of urbanization on poverty reduction. Moreover, cities can help provide a lifestyle that combines a high quality of life with the least amount of resource consumption. Cities, with their compact form, are much more efficient in delivering services such as water, sanitation, and shelter. It’s also not really possible to discourage the growth of cities. People want to move to cities. Countries that have tried to slow this movement are rarely successful.

What is wrong with the way cities currently operate?

The current design and planning practices for cities are rooted in the 19th century. Hugely successful in their time, these 19th century models are no longer the best solution, and in fact have become part of the problem. The world is now a lot more crowded and complex and requires more efficient, longer-term solutions for servicing urban areas.

What is the ideal city for the future?

The ideal city of the future offers a very compact, concise lifestyle. It’s a city that optimizes its growth potential by creating jobs. At the same time, it offers a good quality of life, good living standards, and services such as water, sanitation, and sewerage and transport. It’s also a city which is less consumption oriented, well managed, financially sound, and a city which is ecologically friendly, inclusive , and well managed. In short it is a sustainable city.

How can cities become more ecological and sustainable, while also playing a vital role as an engine of economic growth and driving force of poverty reduction?

A lot depends on what sort of public transportation systems has been installed, what energy efficiency actions have been taken, what policies are in place and are enforced,what kind of housing is available for its citizens, especially the poor. Is it pedestrian friendly? Do people actually have to travel long distances to get to their jobs?

Some cities are now putting in their main infrastructure arteries. A major transport system is like a skeletal system for a city and can last more than 100 years. If you’re not conscious about what kind of public transport system you’re putting in, the larger the city grows, the more congestion there will be on its roads. The richer the people are, the more they will want to drive. Then, it would be difficult for a city to grow into a more environmentally sustainable city.

That said, there are many things cities can do. Most of them are city-specific, but one thing all cities can do is prepare for the future. The future will bring many changes, and cities that are resilient will be able to respond better to future challenges. Part of that involves fostering robust and respectful communications between city officials and the community. Building in redundancy for key infrastructure is also important. Levels of pollution need to be low enough and managed well enough to ensure that the local and global ecosystem can accommodate them. Sustainability is usually predicated on providing a healthy environment for all residents, particularly the most vulnerable.

Are some cities too well established to change?

I think it’s difficult for a city to suddenly reinvent itself, because a certain amount of the DNA of a city—how it has grown for the last 60, 70 years—will always remain there. But they can definitely determine how they plan to grow as more people move in, and also how they want to rehabilitate areas that need regeneration. Also, cities are organic, they are constantly changing and renewing themselves.

What is the World Bank's Eco² program and how will it help?

“Eco² Cities: Ecological Cities as Economic Cities” is a new program to help cities in developing countries achieve greater ecological and economic sustainability. The program will provide practical and scalable, analytical and operational support to cities. The program also aims to build a global partnership among forward-looking cities in developing countries, global best-practice cities, academia, and international development communities.

Are there any success stories out there?

Some of the cities we look to are Yokohama, Japan, Curitaba, Brazil, Barcelona, Spain, Bogota, Colombia, and the old city in Stockholm called Hammarby.

These cities have introduced more efficient public transport—metro and bus rapid transit--and green spaces. They have consciously brought down their energy use through more efficient street lighting and buildings and being energy efficient in the utilities they run. They’ve introduced bicycle paths and encouraged people to cycle. There are also almost always a few neighbourhoods within big cities that are a little farther advanced than the rest of the city. Good examples are really almost everywhere. More importantly, some cities are just beginning to grow – and they have all the potential to grow in a sustainable way carefully managing their resources.