Urbanisation Provides Unprecedented Opportunities to Transition to a Green Economy, Says New Report

As Consumers of Over 75% of Natural Resources, Cities Are Uniquely Placed to Contribute to Efficiency and Sustainability

[Medellin, Colombia, 8 April 2014] – With over half of the global population now living in urban areas, cities are increasingly facing the challenge of ensuring decent standards of living for their inhabitants. Demand for a higher quality of life is increasing despite growing pressures on natural resources and ecosystems. 

In this context, a new report launched jointly today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Cities Alliance at the 2014 World Urban Forum finds that the rapid pace of urbanisation represents an opportunity to build more sustainable, innovative and equitable towns and cities, and to use the world’s natural resources more efficiently.

The report, entitled, Integrating the Environment in Urban Planning and Management: Key Principles and Approaches for Cities in the 21st Century, offers strategies for decision-makers to introduce measures that can spur inclusive economic growth and reduce poverty, while ensuring sustainable levels of consumption and production.

“It is clear that the decisions and actions needed to move society towards more sustainable patterns of consumption and production will need to focus on, and be delivered in, cities,” said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

“Cities are well-placed to play a major role in decoupling economic development from resource use and environmental impacts, while finding a better balance between social, environmental and economic objectives,” he added.

Urban areas occupy just 2 per cent of the world’s terrestrial surface but consume up to 75 per cent of its natural resources. In addition, estimates indicate that cities are responsible for 75 per cent of global CO2 emissions, with transport and buildings being among the largest contributors.

“It is essential that national governments create the space for cities to play a much larger role in transforming unsustainable patterns of human development,” said William Cobbett, Director of Cities Alliance. “As we have witnessed in Medellin, local actions which directly engage and benefit communities can be truly transformative. However, cities need to integrate the environment into their planning before, and not after, urbanisation.”

The report notes that negative environmental impacts from cities occur both directly – through the consumption of resources and the emission of greenhouse gases in cities themselves – and indirectly, through the use of raw materials and energy in distant locations to produce goods and services. 

Some of the world’s wealthiest and superficially cleanest cities may therefore concentrate the consumption of goods whose production may be elsewhere, but which entails both pollution and resource depletion.

Nevertheless, the report finds that urban areas, by their very nature, provide a range of “sustainability multipliers” that can be tapped to address social and environmental burdens. These include lower costs per capita for providing services in densely populated areas, greater options for recycling, and better opportunities for the use of public transport.

At the same time, city leaders can take a variety of proactive measures to help to improve resource efficiency and reduce negative environmental impacts. These include:

  • Mainstreaming environmental priorities into city-level and local development plans, in particular through City Development Strategies that work to reconcile urban economic growth with better resource efficiency;
  • Incorporating emerging ideas about the green urban economy, which show how density can generate environmental and social opportunities, including through green urban infrastructure;
  • Integrating greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies in urban planning and management, which can reduce the impact that cities have on the global environment while improving the quality of life for urban residents;
  • Creating “green jobs”;
  • Undertaking environmental rehabilitation projects that can enhance ecosystem services, improving the quality of the environment while reducing costs of remedial air and water treatment;
  • Expanding access to energy through greening energy supplies, which can provide electricity to households that were previously reliant on wood or kerosene;
  • Underpinning each of these strategies with strong political support and commitment.


The report also examines practical mechanisms for funding urban environmental activities, noting that financial limitations have frequently impeded meaningful environmental activities in the past.

About Cities Alliance

UNEP has been a member of the Cities Alliance, a global partnership for urban poverty reduction promoting and strengthening the role of cities in sustainable development, since 2003. Cities Alliance members include local authorities, national governments, non-governmental organisations and other multilateral organisations.

The Cities Alliance’s overall strategic objectives are to support cities in providing effective local government, an active citizenship and an economy characterized by both public and private investment. The Cities Alliance seeks to realise this goal by: developing and/or enhancing national policy frameworks to address urban development needs; developing and implementing local inclusive strategies and plans; strengthening the capacity of cities to provide improved services to the urban poor; and developing mechanisms to engage citizens in city or urban governance


About This Report:

Integrating the Environment in Urban Planning and Management: Key Principles and Approaches for Cities in the 21st Century is a follow-up from a 2007 joint effort between UNEP and Cities Alliance that culminated in a publication entitled Livable Cities: the Benefits of Urban Environment Planning.

The 2007 report brought together concrete case studies from cities around the world where specific tools, metrics, and measures for strategic urban planning were used. Today’s report goes a step further by analysing the principles and approaches that made the different tools accessible and useful to cities. Through closer examination of the City Development Strategy as a planning tool, the authors of the publication successfully describe what improves efficiency in city planning processes.

The full report is available to download at www.unep.org/publications.

For more information, contact:

UNEP News Desk (Nairobi) on Tel. +254 20 762 3088, E-mail: unepnewsdesk@unep.org

Moira O’Brien-Malone, UNEP Division of Technology, Industry and Economics (Paris) on Tel. +33 1 44 37 76 12, E-mail: moira.obrien-malone@unep.org

Cities Alliance, Email: info@citiesalliance.org, Dr. Rene Peter Hohmann, Sr. Urban Specialist, on Tel.: +32 2 234 6370, E-mail: rhohmann@citiesalliance.org


"Local actions which directly engage and benefit communities can be truly transformative. However, cities need to integrate the environment into their planning before, and not after, urbanisation."

--William Cobbett, Cities Alliance Director










































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