News story

DFID research: The closing window of opportunity- protecting cities from the future

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

2012 report on Future Proofing Cities takes a comprehensive look at environmental risks facing cities, particularly in the developing world.

Last week British media reported on the phenomenon of “urban heat islands” in cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. Citing research by the Energy and Resources Institute in Delhi, the Guardian Poverty Matters Blog discussed the growing concern over the emerging microclimates of India’s largest cities.

With these cities being on average 5-7° hotter than surrounding areas, urbanisation has been identified as the root cause- with population increase, rising pollution and artificial surfaces such as asphalt being acknowledged as key contributors to the significant rise in temperature.

In 2012 a DFID funded report was published which marked the end of a nine-month research project between Atkins and the Development Planning Unit (DPU) at University College London (UCL). In collaboration with the Department for International Development, Future Proofing Cities took a comprehensive look at the environmental risks facing cities, particularly in the developing world. The work was carried out in response to an earlier review which had identified a series of knowledge gaps surrounding urban areas and their capacity to evolve sustainably and securely in the face of new environmental, social and economic challenges.

Currently half the world’s population live in cities. This is expected to rise to 75% by 2050. And with 95% of urban population expansion predicted to take place in the developing world, Future Proofing Cities was designed as a means of addressing issues of environment and poverty as early as possible within urban development plans.

The world is already witness to a number of cities approaching environmental and humanitarian crises due to expansion; in India alone nearly 70 million city inhabitants live in multi-dimensional poverty. The programme’s final report, Why Future Proof Cities, attempts to provide a framework from which investors and policymakers can build upon existing planning and infrastructure using integrative strategies of development.

By including climate risks, ecosystem damage and food security into the preliminary stages of development, the report stresses how further expenditure and natural disaster can be averted. It also highlights how successful strategies engender participatory engagement and thus further encourage grass roots innovation to counter negative environmental and social impact.

Fundamental to the future proofing approach is an understanding that not all cities face the same challenges. The report identifies five core types of city:

  1. Energy intensive cities with significant carbon footprints; such as Bangalore
  2. Cities with major climate hazards; such as Maputo
  3. Cities with risks to regional support systems (water and food/natural habitat); such as Karachi
  4. Cities facing multiple risks
  5. Cities with low current risk profile

The most significant group among these were those cities facing multiple risks. This category included some of world’s largest cities including Mumbai and Delhi, the newly named “urban heat islands”. The report highlights that, in this city type, policymakers need to focus on those policies which address multiple environmental issues; often a difficult task as current economic issues take precedence.

The research programme generated over 100 policy recommendations tailored towards the five types identified. Each policy recommendation can be aligned with one or more city type providing an easily-navigable framework for policymakers.

A number of them, including plans for urban agriculture, micro-generation and improved information on public transport, are relatively easy to deliver and can be easily integrated into existing urban development initiatives.

The report outlines seven overarching recommendations within its chapters:

  1. Developing future proofed urban strategies: cities need more support to develop integrated strategies which address multiple issues; environmental, social and economic;
  2. Unlocking and aligning finance-including climate finance-for future proofing: there is a need to encourage investment in future-proofing strategies through the use of financial and non-financial instruments;
  3. Undertaking urban risk diagnostics: vulnerability, capacity, scale, and pace of change, must all be considered in order to inform effective and realistic deliverables;
  4. Strengthening the capacity of urban governance, planning and delivery services: governance and planning reform need to be implemented within a context of increasing environmental risk;
  5. Improving the data and evidence underpinning city decision making: more investments are needed from international donors to help gather and collate effective data on cities within the developing world and the risks surrounding them;
  6. Additional research and improved guidance: more research is needed on a global level to identify the range of environmental risks likely to impact on urban areas and more guidance should be provided for those cities on how to utilise the existing instruments and information available;
  7. Identifying risks to existing and planned investment portfolios: infrastructure needs could be undermined in the future and these risks need to be fully considered in all planned investments

This document, alongside the project’s website and downloadable resources, provides the foundation for progression towards urban development which protects both regional resources and citizens.

The research provides city planners with a reminder that while we read about the urban problems of today it is not yet too late to prevent some of the problems of tomorrow.