Urban sustainability issues — Enabling resource-efficient cities

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

What is this report about?

Resource efficiency is now a key objective of the Europe 2020 Strategy. The flagship 'Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe' initiative (EC, 2011a) sets out a framework to support a shift towards a resource‑efficient and low-carbon economy in many policy areas. It also gives practical guidance on how to achieve such an economy (EC, 2011b). The Seventh Environment Action Programme, 'Living well, within the limits of our planet', also identifies a resource-efficient, green and competitive low-carbon economy as a key objective (EU, 2013a): its priority 8 is focused on urban sustainability.

Resources are defined as all inputs into the economy (EC, 2011c). 'These resources include raw materials such as fuels, minerals and metals but also food, soil, water, air, biomass and ecosystems' (EC, 2011a). On a planet with finite resources, the challenge is to find a way of delivering greater value and more services with fewer inputs (EC, 2011c).

Cities have a major role to play in delivering the 2020 climate and energy package (1) in full and in improving their resource efficiency for diverse reasons.

  • Demography: Approximately 359 million Europeans — 72 % of the total EU population (Eurostat, 2013) — live in cities, towns and suburbs, and this proportion will continue to increase.
  • Density: Owing to the density and proximity of the population and businesses, the urban system of organisation is a resource-efficient one. Urban metabolic flows can be reduced by better urban management, design and planning. Density allows economies of scale in citizen-oriented services (utilities) such as collective transport, power, water and sanitation services, waste management and district heating.
  • Innovation: As the engines of the economy and centres of research and creative activities, cities are fertile ground for innovation in all domains, including social (e.g. sharing instead of owning, new consumers), organisational (e.g. local partnerships) and institutional innovations. Cities provide the critical mass of markets, consumers and businesses to serve as laboratories of innovation. By drawing on local intelligence, cities can develop entirely new solutions to challenge issues such as transport congestion or excess water consumption.

The challenges that cities will face in trying to achieve resource and energy efficiency are not only strategic, technical and financial, but also related to city management and institutional barriers created by the fragmentation of responsibilities and decision-making. All levels of political authority (2) — local, regional, national and European — have an impact on urban development. The difficulty is in merging the actions of these different levels of government into a consistent and integrated urban policy.

In this institutionally and spatially fragmented environment, urban governance is further complicated by the number and variety of actors (private and public) operating at different territorial levels (e.g. municipalities, urban–rural region, metropolitan area, city-region) with various competencies (e.g. agencies, service providers) and objectives (Chowdhury and Wessel, 2012).

As well as the public and semi-public sectors, the policy-making process involves heterogeneous actors drawn from the private sector, the third sector and citizens. The private sector includes firms that operate at national (e.g. infrastructure providers), regional, city and individual (e.g. property development companies) levels of activity. The third sector includes non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society organisations and non-profit-making organisations (e.g. labour unions, interest groups, ecological associations, neighbourhood committees).

Society needs to be persuaded to embrace common sustainable goals and to accept changes in behaviour. Involving civil society in the decision-making process and in ensuring that policies are effectively implemented is critical. Citizens have to understand how resource and energy efficiency affect their own daily lives and actions at the local scale and the consequences of these choices (even at the global level) (Corfee-Morlot et al., 2014). For policy-makers and decisions-makers, dialogue with citizens is a way not only of understanding society's expectations but also of identifying barriers to and opportunities for transformation.

There is no unique solution. An effective, sustainable pathway needs to take into account the local characteristics of the city (geography, economy, climate, natural capital, social capital, etc.). Each city needs to find its own appropriate solution. Owing to the density of population and economic activities, slight changes in urban management and the behaviour of citizens or businesses can have considerable consequences for the use of natural resources.

Making changes to bring about resource- and energy‑efficient cities, and more generally sustainable cities, is a systemic challenge that requires radical transformation of all dimensions of the urban system: technical, social (e.g. values and norms, social practices) and institutional (Lorenzoni et al., 2007). All levels of public authority have a decisive role to play (Jordan, 2008). Local urban authorities have not only to develop better integration of sectoral policies, but also to collaborate with different levels of government and to cut through jurisdictional boundaries. They have to deal with numerous actors at different territorial levels and within each level. In such a complex environment, the challenge is to develop the art of working with actors who have different interests and finding operational synergies.

Furthermore, the urban metabolism must be optimised on all scales from the lowest possible (building) to block, district, city, neighbourhood and region. Generally, actions are led by different individuals and institutions at the same time and on different scales. The main challenge is to avoid conflict between these actions and to take into consideration the entire system, the interactions between the component parts and the long-term impacts. However, despite this complexity, some cities find a way of developing innovative place-based policies and strategies with local actors and of cooperating with neighbourhood municipalities instead of competing. Some cities have adopted ambitious agendas with targets based on a long-term vision. To achieve their goals, they have developed successful transition management based on co-creative and participatory processes to facilitate societal change.

This report analyses the nature of the multilevel institutional setting, how a city can improve resource efficiency in such a fragmented institutional and spatial environment and how to involve society in the process. It is mainly focused on resource efficiency, but in fact it addresses, more generally, all aspects of urban sustainability and resilience. The high degree of complexity of the urban system is a challenge for all areas of resource efficiency (e.g. climate change adaptation, transport).

Three reports on resource-efficient cities
Local authorities need at the same time to enhance the well-being of society and to preserve natural assets for current and future generations. They have to make the right choices, both now and for the long term, and choose appropriate trade-offs. Although the transition to resource efficiency does not rely only on local factors but also depends on global trends and policy contexts, cities can undergo radical transformation in different domains — energy, housing, transport systems, waste management, green areas, public spaces. Preparing for such transformation now in a controlled manner will allow us to further develop cities properly, while reducing the levels and impact of our resource use.

The objective of these reports is to support policy development and decision-making. They are targeted at policy-makers, decision-makers and stakeholders involved in urban management at the local and city level as well as at the regional level. They analyse the following:

  • Why do resource-efficient urban areas matter?
  • What are the main challenges and what can be done to meet these challenges?
  • What solutions can be implemented on different scales and across sectors?
  • What are the drivers of change?
  • How can cities be governed to achieve the transition to resource-efficient urban areas?
  • How can we involve society in the decision-making process?

This report is part of the following series of three short reports (see Figure 1.1), based on an overview of recent literature and successful case studies, that addresses resource efficiency issues in urban areas.

What is a resource-efficient city?
The report presents the concept of urban metabolism, the circular model and the role of compactness in urban resource efficiency. Cities requires natural resources and energy to sustain the daily life and activities of the urban population. Nevertheless, there are opportunities to minimise input and output flows. As the urban form shapes the way people live, work and move in urban areas, compactness offers the potential to reduce urban flows. The most well-documented effects of compactness are the reduced need for land and energy for transport. Urban planning, based on a vision of the future, developed with local stakeholders and crossing administrative borders, is a key factor in increasing the density of urban areas, developing mixed land use, avoiding the unnecessary uptake of land and soil sealing, reducing car dependency and encouraging the use of public transport, walking and cycling.

Resource-efficient cities: good practice
Cities are key players in minimising the use of resources and in developing the circular model. Generally, municipalities provide utilities and control public services for citizens and businesses that influence the majority of resource and energy use and the production of emissions and waste. Local authorities have the capacity to implement responses on multiple scales. The main challenge is to scale up actions from the simplest, involving one function, such as a building for housing, or involving one resource, such as water management, to integrated solutions in a large urban area (e.g. an ecodistrict) with many functions (e.g. housing, economic activities, green areas, renewable energy production, water harvesting). Another challenge is to move from the current centralised system, with mono-site and end-of-pipe utilities driven by municipalities or utility suppliers, to decentralised systems in which users are owners and producers. The report analyses both the supply and the demand issues. It is divided into two parts: the first is devoted to how to avoid, prevent and reduce the use of resources, and the second addresses reusing, cascading, recycling and harvesting.

Enabling resource-efficient cities
To achieve resource- and energy-efficient cities, local authorities have to overcome the limitations of policy instruments that are insufficient to deal with the complexity of urban challenges. They face not only strategic, technical and financial challenges but also institutional barriers created by the fragmentation of responsibilities and decision-making, the number and variety of actors (public, private, civil society, individuals) contributing to resource efficiency through their daily decisions and practices and operating at different levels, the challenge of addressing the urban system as a whole, and the characteristics of the city (geography, economy, climate, history, natural capital, social capital, etc.). Despite this complexity, some cities have adopted ambitious policy agendas with targets, managing the city in a far-sighted goal-oriented way, cooperating with surrounding municipalities and other levels of governance, and developing a transition management approach. This is a form of governance that facilitates societal change. It is based on a dialogue between private and public actors (users, citizens, firms, universities, public authorities) that envisages a common future and identifies ways of achieving a resourceefficient society and, more generally, sustainability.

Scope of this report
Chapter 2 focuses on the factors contributing to complexity. It concludes that, first, resource efficiency has to become an overarching goal influencing all stages of the policy-making cycle and integrating all sectors. Second, cities have to work with a number of diverse actors and develop effective cooperation with municipalities beyond the limits of their jurisdiction.

Chapter 3 presents the role of the different levels of government, from the European to the local level. It demonstrates that each level of government influences city policy-making, so that both top-down and bottom‑up approaches are working at the same time at the urban level. Furthermore, synergies can be developed between the different levels.

Chapter 4 analyses transition management in cities. It describes how, in order to overcome the limitations of policy instruments that are often ill equipped to deal with the highly complex challenges and persistent problems without predefined solutions, city authorities develop explorative governance involving all of society. By defining a long-term vision with ambitious targets and encouraging participation, cutting-edge cities aim to change the ways in which stakeholders and civil society think and act.

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