Best Practice Report


Policy design and implementation / Sustainable cities

5. Sustainable cities

Pilot and scale-up regulations, financial incentives, demonstration programs, capacity building, and consumer education and awareness programs to improve the quality of life and environmental impacts of cities.

Urban policy will play a significant role in green growth. The world’s population, economic activity, and resource consumption are concentrated in cities. While covering only about 2% of the global land area, cities are responsible for approximately 80% of global economic output and between 60-80% of global energy and material flows (UNEP, 2011). Between 2009 and 2030, cities are expected to accommodate an additional 3 billion people – approximately 90% of which will take place in Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, however already one third of the urban population of developing countries live in slums (UN Habitat, 2013).

Global statistics like those above mask the variety of challenges that different cities around the world are facing with some stabilizing or even decreasing in size while others are growing rapidly. Both situations present opportunities as well as challenges to green growth. However, considering the interconnectedness of sectors at the city-level, as well as the smaller scale of the implementation challenge, designing effective policies at this level can be more manageable than at a national level (OECD, 2013c).

Green growth policies in cities must address the backlog of environmental restoration. One of the central challenges for urban green growth policies is restoring environmental quality. Many cities, especially in developing countries, have experienced rapid economic and demographic growth and have built up problems of water and air pollution, noise, and land degradation. For example, between 33-50% of the solid waste generated by cities in low- and middle income countries is not collected and less than 35% of waste water is treated (UN Habitat, 2013). In China air and water pollution in 2003 is estimated to cost at least 2.5% of national GDP (World Bank, 2007). Additionally, social challenges in cities are increasing. In India, for example, it is estimated that by 2030, 38 million households will be unable to afford market-price rents (McKinsey Global Institute, 2010).

Many cities are developing green growth plans to both address these challenges and harness the economic growth opportunities. For example, the C40 Cities initiative brings together major cities addressing climate change, and gives an overview of their progress (C40 Cities, 2014). Case 5 illustrates the case of Mexico City.

Effective policy portfolios for sustainable cities often combine policy instruments such as regulations, financial incentives, demonstration programs, capacity building, and consumer education and awareness programs (OECD, 2013c). Singapore (Case 6), for example, has successfully implemented a broad mix of such policies across environmental issues in key sectors. Policy portfolios for green growth usually address the following sectors: land-use planning, transport, housing and public-spaces, energy, waste, and water.

Implementation of comprehensive policy portfolios often starts with isolated projects or programs. Cases evaluated confirm that important actions are taking place related to land conservation, housing and public spaces, water supply and sanitation, transportation and mobility, air pollution, waste management, and recycling. Policies in each area have often been implemented in different periods, for different purposes, and are managed by different institutions. In some cases, the municipal government has realized the co-benefits of some actions, such as reforestation projects which also avoid landslides and decided to integrate these in one program, normally under the umbrella of climate change. More recently, cities have begun to adopt broader concepts of sustainability and resilience, but usually with the primary objective of integrating existing initiatives into a consolidated policy framework, rather than designing a policy portfolio of new initiatives. Cities such as Mexico City, New Delhi, and Singapore have, for example, embarked on more comprehensive greening efforts following concerted efforts to improve air and water quality.

Long-standing experience in cities shows that effective policy portfolios at the city level tend to evolve over time, through a process of trial and error, especially as city administrations change. Singapore has been developing its policy portfolio since 2002, reviewing and upgrading it regularly (Case 6). Another strategy discussed in the literature involves layering policy instruments together to make the most of their complementarities, for example, starting with enabling instruments, such as education programs and technical assistance, before moving to regulatory strategies later (OECD, 2013c).

City policies must be integrated with national and sector policies. One of the key challenges for effective design and implementation of policy portfolios in urban areas is their integration across different governance levels, sectors, and actors, including the private sector, civil society, and the general public. The vertical linkages between national and local levels are discussed in more detail in Chapter 8: Integrating subnational action.

The city of Medellín in Colombia (Case 7) illustrates, for example, the importance of integrating programs across different actors, coupling government policies with corporate environmental and social responsibility programs, and across sectors to address mobility, housing, public space, and environmental goals. 

The case of Rio de Janeiro (Case 8) shows the importance of another dimension, that policy portfolios need to integrate effectively across time. In Rio the climate policy portfolio fully integrates medium and near-term climate change mitigation measures with the long-term city development plan.

Case 5: Mexico City’s Plan Verde

With 21 million people on 1,499 sq. km. and after decades of environmental degradation, Mexico City’s Green Plan (Plan Verde) was launched in August 2007 to address the critical environmental issues (City Mayors Environment, 2010). It focuses on land conservation, housing and public spaces, water supply and sanitation, transportation and mobility, air pollution, waste management and recycling, and climate change. The city government established a plan with 76 goals and has spent more than $1 billion per year on it, representing about 7% of its annual budget. One noteworthy hallmark of this plan is the establishment of concrete implementation targets and effective systems to monitor progress. A key lesson learned is that it is important to apply a rigorous approach to developing tailored solutions for each urban sector. (Mexico City’s Green Plan, 2014)

Case 6: The Singapore Green Plan 2012

Singapore first launched its Green Plan at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, which has been reviewed and upgraded at 3 year intervals since then (MEWR, 2006). The plan is driven by concern for quality of life and resource security in the city state, as well as securing a clean and green image as a means to attract investment. The plan includes regulations and standards, pricing systems, demonstration programs, consumer behavior change campaigns, information management, and other policies, and addresses air quality, climate change, water, waste, nature conservation, and public health. Singapore’s government has invested significant resources in achieving its environmental goals, and has met most of its 2012 goals. In 2009 the Inter-Ministerial Commission on Sustainable Development launched a longer term Sustainable Singapore Blueprint which sets out stringent sustainable development goals to 2030. These include ambitious targets for energy efficiency, water consumption, air quality, public transportation, water catchment areas, and green buildings. One feature that has enabled Singapore’s success is the use of a comprehensive mix of approaches tailored to each environmental goal.

Case 7: The city of Medellín

The city has a goal of becoming an urban center that promotes alternative urban development, responding to the challenges that climate change impose. Water and transportation sectors are two case examples of policies that are being designed in the context of green growth. The public water services provider for Medellín and the Aburrá Valley in Colombia serves a population of 5.2 million people (UNECLAC and UNW-DPAC, 2012). It combines formal public policies at the local and national level with corporate social responsibility policies benefiting the weakest segment of the population. A portfolio of initiatives aims to guarantee universal access to public services and to prevent vulnerable populations from falling into a poverty trap that would impede their ability to connect to and consume these essential and vital services. A recent evaluation study found that the current provisions for vulnerable users are showing good results.

Case 8: The Rio de Janeiro 2016 Strategic Plan

To ensure the good use of foreign investments coming to the city and to improve its governance, the Rio de Janeiro administration developed its 2016 Strategic Plan and a new management structure to support the implementation and tracking of its specific climate change targets and milestones. Aligned with Rio’s Climate Change Mitigation Law of 2011, that is one of the policies that make up the Strategic Plan, the Rio Low Carbon City Development Program intends to provide a critical link between long-term strategic planning and medium- to short-term implementation of climate mitigation-related interventions (World Bank Institute, 2013).