Urban Environment: about our work
Urban environmental burdens arise at different scales, and include:
- The environmental hazards in and around people’s homes and workplaces. These account for a large share of ill-health, early deaths and hardship in urban Africa, Asia and Latin America, and contribute to persistent poverty. They include inadequate household water and sanitation, indoor air pollution, neighbourhood waste accumulation, and pest infestation.
- The environmental and ecological degradation that occurs in and around urban centres. These are the most evidently ‘urban’ burdens, as they result from urban concentration of productive and consumptive activities, including especially industry and motorized transport. They include urban air pollution, urban ground and surface water abstraction and pollution, urban waste dumping, and the expansion of built up areas.
- The global environmental burdens now associated with urban consumption, especially in affluent urban settlements and neighbourhoods. The best known example is probably climate change, resulting from greenhouse gas emissions, but the global burden of urban activity is often measured through aggregate indicators as ecological footprints
IIED’s Human Settlements Programme has been working on urban environmental issues since the mid-1970s. Both our topics and our ways of working are informed by our poverty focus. People on very low incomes, living in slums or squatter settlements, tend to be the most vulnerable to all three types of environmental burdens, but are particularly susceptible to the local environmental hazards in and around their home.
Ways of working
Most of our activities fall into one of the following three categories:
- Working on city or multi-city projects, led locally by partners (who may be either researchers, practitioners, or both), but often synthesized or co-ordinated by IIED. Recent examples include:
- The project documenting successful Local Agenda 21s and LA21-like initiatives in cities of Latin America, Africa and Asia (1997-2005)
- A project on public-private partnerships in water and sanitation and the urban poor in low income settlements in Buenos Aires, Kenya and Jakarta (2000-2005)
- A recently IDRC funded project, led by IIED-AL, of action research in Moreno, which will focus first on extending water and sanitation, but extend to cover such issues as urban agriculture and flood control (2006-2009)
- Undertaking topical international research and communication, most often led or coordinated by IIED staff, but frequently including partners. This may involve writing articles, reports or books, holding meetings or making presentations. Recent examples include:
- Preparing a chapter on Urban Systems for the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment (published 2005)
- Editing two special issues of Environment and Urbanization, on Ecological Urbanism (2006)
- Undertaking a book project, with the UNU Institute for Advanced Studies, entitled Scaling the Urban Environmental Burden: from the local to the global and back
- Assisting international development agencies, in the preparation of reports, policy guidelines or meetings. Recent examples include:
- Reviewing urban poverty and environment issues in Africa for the Ford Foundation (2005)
- Preparing UN-Habitat’s books on Water and Sanitation in the World’s Cities (2004 & 2006)
- Assisting Sida in the preparation of the background report for their Urban Strategy (also urban poverty and rural-urban linkages) (2004/5)
Our strategy has been to try to balance these three types of activities, with the first providing a lot of our local grounding (and links to Southern partners), the second more of our research credibility (and links to Northern as well as Southern research and academic communities), and the third more of our international influence (and links to the international development assistance community).
The principal topics that we are currently working on are:
- Improving water and sanitation provision in deprived urban settlements
Inadequate water and sanitation provision is a characteristic environmental problem in many low-income urban settlements, and is often linked to social and economic insecurity, including informal and illegal settlement. Our work in this areas has included critical reviews of the potential role of the large private water companies in addressing the needs of the poorest urban dwellers, and of the potential role of water resource management. On the more positive side, we have also worked to document locally-driven initiatives, many of which involve partnerships of one form or the other between community organizations and non-governmental organizations, local authorities and/or utilities.
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- Adapting Cities to Climate Change
To date, discussions of how to address climate change have focused far more on mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) than adaptation (coping with the storms, floods, sea-level rise and other impacts that climate change will bring).
The limited discussions on adaptation have also given little attention to cities. But many cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean are at high risk from climate change.
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- Local Agenda 21 and similar urban environmental initiatives in Asia, Africa and Latin America. These city-wide environmental initiatives have taken many forms, but are generally led by local governments, and engage a wide range of different urban groups in planning and implementing environmental improvements. While most common in high-income countries, where national organizations often co-ordinate the efforts of a large number of local authorities, they also made considerable headway in Asia and Latin America – and somewhat less in Africa. IIED has worked with a number of local practitioners, to help document and understand some of the more successful initiatives, including some that did not adopt the label. (See, for example, our Working Paper series on Local Agenda 21)
- Reconciling the Brown and Green Agendas (also with an emphasis on Asia, Africa and Latin America). One of the tensions in the field of urban environment is between a ‘Brown Agenda’, which focuses on immediate health burdens, and a ‘Green Agenda’, which focuses on longer-term ecological burdens. Pursued separately, these agendas suggest very different priorities, but the conflicts are often socially constructed. Our work in this area has emphasised those aspects of the Brown Agenda most critical to urban poor groups, and also measures that can help to reconcile the two agendas. (See, for example, the chapter of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment on Urban Systems (chapter 27), or the book on Scaling the Urban Environmental Challenges)
For briefing papers on a selection of key topics, see the E&U Briefs that summarise the articles in Environment and Urbanization.