Tackling inequality, cutting carbon emissions: 5 key issues from World Cities Summit

This year's World Cities Summit was themed Liveable And Sustainable Cities: Emerging Stronger. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - More than 2,500 mayors and city leaders, senior government officials, industry experts and trade visitors attended the World Cities Summit 2022 last week to discuss challenges that cities face and how to address them.

Held at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre from July 31 to Aug 2, this year’s edition was themed Liveable And Sustainable Cities: Emerging Stronger.

The biennial summit was started by Singapore's Centre for Liveable Cities in 2008 for city leaders to share urban solutions and best practices.

In an interview with The Straits Times, Minister of State for National Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim said key discussion topics at the summit have shifted significantly over the years.

"Around 10 to 15 years ago, we were talking about urban design and urban form. Today, terms like climate change and decarbonisation are increasingly common, which shows that we are on the right path," said Associate Professor Faishal.

"While each city has its own strengths and weaknesses, exchanging of broad ideas at summits is important as you can bring them back and contextualise application in your own city," he added.

One common thread expressed by leaders was the pressing need to engage the people to understand their aspirations for their future city, he said.

ST looks at five key issues discussed during the summit.

1. Role of cities in post-pandemic world

As remote work becomes more prevalent, are cities still relevant? How can cities remain vibrant and attractive?

These were questions posed to five panellists at a discussion titled What Does The Future Hold For Cities.

Mr Josef Hargrave, global leader of foresight at professional services firm Arup, said that while many cities are bouncing back from the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been shifts in social engagement and consumption patterns among people.

Thursday, for instance, is the new Friday as people tend to work from home on Fridays, he said. This, in turn, impacts the entertainment and food and beverage industries, which are seeing much more activity on Thursdays than previously.

"These small shifts are interesting as they impact the structure and functions of a city," he said, noting that local shops and neighbourhoods have become just as, if not more, important than traditional Central Business Districts during the pandemic.

The "15-minute city" - where residents can reach most daily necessities within 15 minutes from their home - is an increasingly important concept for urban planners, said panellist Josef Hargrave at the World Cities Summit. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

As a result, the "15-minute city" - where residents can reach most daily necessities within 15 minutes from their home - is an increasingly important concept for urban planners to account for when designing cities, he said.

Panellists said utilising technology and harnessing big data in city planning is a critically important piece of the puzzle in building a liveable city.

Professor Lily Kong, president of the Singapore Management University, said the pandemic has shone a spotlight on areas that some have taken for granted, such as food security and public health and safety.

"While technology can improve the way we plan cities, listening is not just through data. Listening is through the heart and recognising the needs of your citizens," she added.

2. Inequality

While cities reap the benefits of being open to talents and investments from around the world, the challenge is to distribute the fruits of globalisation equitably, said leaders at the summit.

To avoid widening the gap, vulnerable groups must be front and centre in city planning, said South Africa's Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Patricia de Lille.

"If you have a city that does not consider the impact of (planning decisions) on the most vulnerable people in your city, it can't be a resilient city," she said.

Cities like Singapore and London have a part to play in helping small and medium-sized cities build their capacity to deal with resource scarcity, said Mr Hargrave. PHOTO: ST FILE

Mr Flemming Borreskov, president of the Catalytic Society - a Denmark-based organisation that promotes dialogue between governments, the business community and civil society- said that as cities require a certain critical mass to have a productive economy, the resulting effect is that cities are both the driver and reflection of inequality.

This is where national governments and local leadership have to step in to redistribute wealth as cities left solely to the market economy will produce a larger inequality gap.

UN-Habitat executive director Maimunah Sharif said the pandemic had exposed the inequality in housing sufficiency between cities - something that her organisation, which helps improve cities through methods such as policy advice and technical assistance, is prioritising in 2022 and 2023.

"During the lockdown, we asked people to stay at home but if they have no home, where are they going to stay?" she said. "If half of the world is offline, how can people work from home?"

Mr Hargrave suggested that more developed cities could step in to aid developing ones. Cities like Singapore and London have a part to play in helping small and medium-sized cities build their capacity to deal with resource scarcity, be it water or energy, he added.

"It is one thing to be able to receive and understand a solution to a city's problem, but it's very different to have the capacity to act upon it," he said.

3. Community partnership

Involving citizens in planning builds social capital and increases their ownership of the city's challenges, said Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

City planners and leaders said planning for their cities must involve the community. They highlighted public consultation and education as key to getting buy-in on policy decisions.

Ms Lianne Dalziel, Mayor of Christchurch, New Zealand, said involving citizens in planning builds social capital and increases their ownership of the city's challenges.

Communities need to be "deeply involved" in the city's planning processes, she said, adding that citizens should sit down with experts who can inform them of the challenges that accompany the plans discussed.

Unless this happens, citizens will begin to assume problems that arise are somebody else's problem, she said. "Community resilience is about the capacity to adapt, but it is also about the capacity to co-create - coming together to reimagine a new future."

Having seen his city just come through its biggest building boom, Mr Brian Golden, director emeritus of the Boston Planning and Development Agency, said strong civic engagement was essential for success.

"The only way we can get political consensus around that scale of development is by having iterative conversations in the neighbourhood - day after day, consistently," he said.

Mr Golden added that conversations were needed to get buy-in for decisions, by explaining how new developments would benefit not just the affluent but also the rest of the citizenry through areas such as new jobs and increased public funds from property taxes.

4. Reducing carbon emissions

Besides sourcing renewable energy resources, he said cities should be looking at reducing energy usage, said Ramboll global managing director of buildings Soren Brondum. PHOTO: ST FILE

Speakers made clear that concrete actions were needed at the global, city and community levels to bring down carbon emissions.

Mr Soren Brondum, global managing director of buildings at Danish consulting firm Ramboll, said cities should stop relying on new resources to develop infrastructure and instead focus on existing buildings and resources, such as retrofitting buildings with greener appliances or mandating that a certain percentage of a new building's materials come from recycled sources.

Besides sourcing renewable energy resources, he said cities should be looking at reducing energy usage.

Dell Technologies' president for Asia-Pacific and Japan and Global Digital Cities Amit Midha said new cities must be designed with carbon neutrality as a core principle.

Often there is a wide gap between the "ideological talking" that global leaders engage in at conferences, and the work they do back home, said the Mayor of Dutch city Rotterdam, Mr Ahmed Aboutaleb, pointing to the United Nations Climate Change Conferences.

Citing community planting projects in his city, Mr Aboutaleb said such projects - while small in scale - will have a great impact on the city. "The whole street is green, though it takes little effort, little budget."

5. Financing green projects

Cities transitioning to electric vehicles is one way to go in tackling climate change, but it will require large amounts of funding. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Transitioning to electric vehicles, increasing a city's solar energy capabilities and retrofitting existing buildings with sustainable features will go a long way in tackling climate change, but these require large amounts of funding.

But exactly how cities are setting clear action plans to reach their green targets while getting the relevant funding for these opportunities is something that still needs to be better worked out, said panellists in a discussion titled Sustainable Financing Of Cities: A New Normal?

This is because financing green projects, such as the building of sustainable urban infrastructure, requires cities to go beyond traditional means of financing, as most are restricted to borrowing from central governments.

Ms Isabel Chatterton, director and regional head of industry for Asia-Pacific infrastructure at International Finance Corporation, said there is a lot of capital out there, but it is not necessarily reaching the right projects.

"If national governments are able to set up a prudent borrowing framework and give cities fiscal autonomy, it may help open doors to more private and commercial funding such as green bonds and public-private partnerships," she said.

Panellists said the financing gap is especially acute in developing cities, which are significant contributors to climate change but may not have set a clear action plan on reaching their goals.

Mr Nuon Pharat, vice-governor of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, said a roadblock facing many developing cities like his is a lack of information and access to the line of funding that is needed to make major changes.

Another challenge for Phnom Penh is a lack of skilled people at local and national level who are able to prepare projects to meet the strict requirements to obtain private funding, said Mr Nuon.

"We're still a developing city so cost recovery is still a high priority for us. Private investments are looking for high returns," he said, suggesting that a platform that connects cities to financial institutions and other corporations could be looked into.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.