Climate responsive cities: a road towards the 'New Urban Agenda'?

A new book, written by local practitioners and edited by IIED, shows how cities across Asia are applying their own approaches to managing climate change risks, and finds that good governance underpins an effective response.

Informal settlements around Laguna Lake near Manila in the Philippines (Photo: Arlynn Aquino EU/ECHO, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Last month saw 30,000 participants gather in Quito for the United Nations' cities summit Habitat III, culminating in the adoption of the 'New Urban Agenda' – the UN's 20-year strategy for sustainable urban development. Now the agenda is formally in place, the real business of implementing this new roadmap begins. 

In signing off the agenda, national governments agreed to a raft of commitments to rethink the way we plan and manage our cities. 

These include building resilience to disasters to prevent harmful impacts on people and damage to infrastructure and economies, and taking action on climate change by reducing carbon emissions.

This recognises that cities can and should be at the frontline of responding to climate change. 

But the technical and financial support to deliver the transformation needed falls far short. Nonetheless, a growing number of cities around the world are taking steps to mitigate climate change and respond to its impacts – and their experiences can provide a useful example for others. 

Locally-generated evidence 

A new book I edited with IIED's Sarah Colenbrander and David Dodman provides a novel and empirically rich analysis of the ways in which cities in South and Southeast Asia are responding to climate change. 

The chapters were initially prepared as working papers for the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), a multi-year programme funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. 

Most books of this nature are written by international researchers. Such authors can speak authoritatively to the governance challenges facing many cities in Asia: rapid population growth, informal economic and spatial expansion, the need to deliver and finance new urban infrastructure at scale, and decentralisation of responsibility without the resources to match – all of which are made more complex by climate change.

Yet such work often lacks the intimate knowledge of local context, whether environmental hazards, institutional arrangements (organisational and regulatory) or cultural norms, that must ultimately shape resilience strategies. 

This book is authored by Asian practitioners and researchers whose local perspectives bring real insight into how their cities are tackling the drivers of urban vulnerability and identifying the barriers to action. 

Taken together, the chapters bring out the variety of resilience strategies being piloted from India to Indonesia. They can inform the expanding debate about ways local action can build more resilient urban centres in low- and middle-income countries, by building the capacities across three strands: actors, knowledge generation and institutions.

Adaptive urban governance: open to voices, responsive to knowledge 

Climate vulnerability and resilience are shaped not only by exposure to environmental threats, but social, political and cultural factors such as income, education, and voice in planning processes. 

The book sets out why a broader range of actors must be heard in adaptation planning, be they children (chapter 2) often acutely exposed to the impacts of climate change, or migrant workers (chapter 1) who may be neglected constituents facing procedural injustices in social, political and legal systems.

To respond to these different voices, urban governance must be flexible enough to incorporate new information about emerging risks and agile enough to embrace diverse technologies such as GIS mapping (chapter 4). It must be ready to use new insurance models (chapter 9) and adopt participatory approaches to vulnerability assessments (chapter 6).

Beyond the physical

A clear and compelling message arises from the chapters: urban climate change adaptation goes beyond physically climate-proofing a city's infrastructure. 

The physical aspects of adaptation planning must run alongside more socio-political elements – building public awareness, generating knowledge and inviting participation in planning and decision-making – to ensure that urban investment decisions do not reinforce existing inequities or leave certain groups more exposed or susceptible to climate impacts.

This book therefore recognises that enhancing urban resilience will require – and will also contribute to – reforming existing social and political structures. Pursuing adaptive governance means including marginalised actors, appreciating more diverse forms of knowledge, and supporting institutions to be more flexible and responsive. 

In practice this can lead to, for example, better coordination across water companies in urban and peri-urban Vietnam to ensure all households receive clean water (chapter 7), or allowing more flexibility in local government adaptation planning in Indonesian cities to better address community priorities (chapter 10). 

The book emphasises that for urban climate resilience the design of institutions is equally – if not more – important than the design of physical infrastructure. Truly adaptive governance recognises the people, neighbourhoods and cities at risk – and puts them at the centre of the response.

Diane Archer (diane.archer@iied.org) is a researcher with IIED's Human Settlements research group.