Planning cities amid climate change

Private sector activity in Kenya defied ravaging floods to grow at the fastest pace in more than one and a half years.

Photo credit: Stanley Ngotho | Nation Media Group

Whether you’re watching television or reading a newspaper, the outlook for our planet appears increasingly grim. Just within the past week, torrential rains have wreaked havoc from East Africa to the Middle East and across vast expanses of Asia.

Meanwhile, unprecedented tornadoes are tearing through North America. Clearly, something has gone terribly awry with our climate, and we're ill-prepared to face it. Nature is sending us a clear message: it's time to adopt new strategies to address climate change.

At the forefront of this global challenge are urban centres. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), cities are responsible for over 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and are also most susceptible to the impacts of rising temperatures, sea levels, and extreme weather events.

Indeed, recent events have shown that cities bear the brunt of these changes. And they can reduce their carbon footprint, adapt to climate change, and simultaneously enhance liveability, social equity, and economic prosperity. One promising approach is green urban planning, which integrates environmental considerations into urban planning policies, processes, and practices.

Green urban planning offers a holistic approach to address climate change while also tackling social and economic issues within . It also seeks to create low-carbon, resilient, and inclusive cities that use energy and resources efficiently, preserve and enhance natural ecosystems and biodiversity, and ensure a high quality of life for all residents and visitors.

Take Kenya, for example, where the former President, the late Mwai Kibaki initiated the implementation of Vision 2030. He appointed the late Mutula Kilonzo to lead the spatial planning of Nairobi and its surroundings.

The plan aimed to increase green spaces and vegetation, promote active and public transportation, enhance energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, reduce waste and pollution, improve water management and quality, and foster social inclusion and participation.

Under this framework, the Ministry of Environment, led by the late John Michuki, undertook the monumental task of cleaning up the Nairobi River, transforming it from a dumpsite into a vibrant green space. Thousands of people flocked the park to enjoy the facility leading to improved business activity within the adjacent Grogan Road.

In my view, even modest policy interventions yield many benefits for both the environment and society, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved air quality and public health, enhanced biodiversity, increased urban attractiveness and competitiveness, and strengthened social cohesion and well-being.

The revitalised river not only resisted heavy rains but also minimised loss of life and property damage. While the task may seem daunting, it's achievable within city budgets.

But despite comprehensive planning efforts, such as those led by Mutula, many initiatives remain unrealised. Therefore, urgent action is needed to embrace green urban planning principles and develop infrastructure that can support the future. Moreover, there's an opportunity for Africa to transform rural areas into urban centres to increase agricultural land, green spaces, and vegetation, thereby improving food security and mitigating climate change.

Inclusive and participatory processes, like those employed in Nairobi, are crucial for ensuring that diverse needs and preferences are considered and that the benefits and costs of interventions are equitably distributed. Local knowledge and expertise must be leveraged to make green urban planning context-specific and culturally appropriate.

However, challenges such as lack of awareness, coordination, capacity, and resources can impede the adoption of green urban planning. National and local governments must take the lead in creating and enforcing policies that promote sustainable urban development and provide incentives for green initiatives.

Through education, training, and partnerships, they can mobilize support and foster a culture of sustainability and innovation.

The urgency of this task cannot be overstated. Failure to act decisively will lead to even more severe consequences, exacerbating inequalities and jeopardising the well-being of current and future generations. It requires bold leadership, innovative solutions, and collective action from governments, businesses, communities, and individuals.

Together, we can build cities that are not only environmentally sustainable but also equitable, inclusive, and resilient. The time to act is now.

The writer is Kenya’s Ambassador to Belgium, Mission to the European Union, Organization of African Caribbean and Pacific States and World Customs Organisation. The article is written at a personal level.

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