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Science Needs a Central Place in the New Urban Agenda

By Xuemei Bai

More of the global population is becoming concentrated in cities yet science has been largely excluded from global urbanisation planning.

Global urbanisation is one of the biggest social transformations in human history, particularly in China, India and Africa. Australia is already highly urbanised, but it’s one of the few developed countries that is still experiencing rapid urban expansion.

With more than half of the world’s population already living in cities, and 90% of population growth by 2050 projected to be added to them, cities are at the forefront of the battle for sustainability. They pose major challenges for city planners and policymakers, such as land use, resource demand, and air and water pollution.

More urban areas will be built in the next 30 years than ever before. Cities already account for about 75% of global energy use and contribute an equivalent share of greenhouse gas emissions. If cities continue to expand at this rate, the projected urbanisation alone will breach the warming limit set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

The New Urban Agenda, which was adopted in October at the United Nations Habitat III Conference in Ecuador, provides a global vision and roadmap for sustainable urban development over the next 20 years. Its 165 clauses emphasise the right to cities, the importance of local government and grassroots communities, the importance of smart development, building resilience and sustainability, as well as means of implementation and plans for follow-up and review.

The New Urban Agenda was adopted shortly after the inclusion of cities as one of the UN’s sustainable development goals and the emphasis of the role of cities in the IPCC’s Paris agreement. Unfortunately science didn’t play a major role in the drafting of the New Urban Agenda.

Cities are complex, adaptive and evolving systems that interact and influence each other in complex ways. Understanding these interactions, including synergies and trade-offs, are essential for formulating effective interventions that ensure sustainable, liveable and resilient cities.

Enhancing liveability and resilience while providing urban infrastructure seem to be separate goals, but some cities are finding synergies by introducing the concept of “sponge cities”, where more urban green and permeable surfaces can reduce the risk of floods at much lower costs. Identifying the most effective leverage points are essential to achieve the many urban goals, but doing so requires a better scientific understanding of the urban systems.

Working together is challenging, as scientists and urban policymakers and practitioners operate under different timeframes and have difficult criteria for success. Yet, unless a much closer collaboration between science and cities becomes reality soon, the ambitious and comprehensive goals included in the New Urban Agenda will remain a long wish list.

Scientists are responding by attempting to better organise themselves through the creation of the Urban Knowledge Action Network. This global research and engagement platform, launched at Habitat III, aims to bring researchers, policymakers and practitioners together to design, produce and implement cutting-edge yet actionable urban knowledge.

Encouraging signs are on the way too. During the Habitat III conference, the IPCC approved a proposal to hold a major conference on cities and climate change in 2018. The aim of the conference is to boost and actively influence the research agenda linking cities and climate change. The outcome of the conference will enrich and better inform future IPCC assessment reports on cities.

The momentum for a stronger science policy linkage is building, but the urban research community is still not adequately positioned to influence the global policy process. Urban researchers must first join together to advocate research priorities and develop funding mechanisms if they are to influence policies such as the UN’s sustainable development goals and the New Urban Agenda.


Xuemei Bai is Professor of Urban Environment and Human Ecology at The Australian National University.