The Need for scientists to have a say in the future of cities

17 Oct 2016 - 12:45

More urban areas will be built in the next 30 years than ever before.  Growing settlements will increase demand for infrastructure, food, energy, water and housing.  Simply meeting the projected urban expansion will breach the warming limit set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

The United Nation’s third major global cities conference, Habitat III is taking place in Quito, Ecuador and the meeting will adopt a global framework for making cities more sustainable – the New Urban Agenda (NUA).  Sadly, science was largely absent from the drafting process of the NUA.

Urban Acceleration:

Rapid urbanization is one of the biggest social transformations in human history.  Cities are depleting resources and face new risks caused by climate change.  By way of example, disastrous floods in the past decade in the United States, Philippines, the United Kingdom, India and China show how vulnerable coastal and riverside cities are to storm surges, with trillions of dollars’ worth of assets at stake.  Yet cities can also be engines of innova­tion. Here, the most progress is being made on climate change and other sustainability goals. For example, cities around the world are embracing nature-based infrastructure for adaptation and resilience, such as green roofs and wetland restoration.

City processes are complex and urban areas are dif­ficult to plan, manage and govern, and have a huge appe­tite for energy and materials, with global environmental impact. Urban challenges ask complex and interrelated questions about equity, justice, resilience, economic opportunity, infrastructure development, ecological restoration and more.

The authors of the paper highlight how implementing, monitoring, evaluating and revising the NUA and related SDGs will require evidence from across the research community, from natural and social scien­tists to humanities scholars. To be useful to policymakers, urban research needs to be organized, representative and seen as legiti­mate, which is currently far from the case. Urban researchers are scattered across non-governmental organizations, gov­ernment agencies and community-based organizations, and are found both in and outside academia. They span many disci­plines and professions, including architec­ture, ecology, engineering and geography and the people, funds and institutions are distrib­uted unevenly.

Most urban scientists and resources are located in the global north and in large cit­ies, but the most pressing urban challenges tend to be found in the global south and in small to medium sized cities. Urban research and solutions are context-specific. The dif­ferent developmental trajectories of cities in Africa, Asia or Latin America may be at least as significant as the better-documented gap between northern and southern cities.

The authors emphasise that scholars must expand primary research in less-studied and rapidly changing urban contexts such as those found in Latin America and south and southeast Asia. For example, too little is known about the global interlocking system of cities in terms of material usage, ecosystems, social and political norms, migration, disease vectors and innovation. Urban scientists need to better map and model these to provide information for planning, management and policymaking.

The skills of drawing together many sources of knowledge to inform global urban policy are in short supply. Professional certi­fication systems and the lack of interactions across sectors reinforce the isolation of specialists such as engineers, architects and planners. Paradoxically, urban researchers in the global south, who are forced to become generalists because of skill shortages, may have broader experience than their peers in the north, where academic practices and evaluations often reinforce specialization. Many southern scholars engage directly with urban communities and local and national policymakers.

The authors of the paper advocate five steps to boos the development and impact of urban science.

1. Forming a global urban scientific body. An international urban science platform formed to address the post-2030 agenda. It must enable broad science–policy interaction and cross-city learning at a global scale. This could connect existing global net­works such as the IPCC, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, UN-Habitat, the UN Environment Programme, the Future Earth Urban Knowledge-Action Network and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The body should be developed in consultation with scientists, professional societies and holders of urban knowledge at all levels, including scholars, civil servants and citizens. Governance must be inclusive and could be based on the polycentric model developed at Future Earth, a global platform for sustainability research, with regional hubs responding to local issues.

2. Spreading knowledge and institutions globally. Most research is in the north; most need is in the south. Inclusivity and diversity across geographic regions and scientific domains is key to legitimacy and legibility. Major investment is needed in academic institutes that are sited at the nexus of urban research, policy and prac­tice in rapidly urbanizing cities. Mapping knowledge and institutions would help to uncover key geographic and thematic gaps.

3.  Boosting funding for urban research. Truly global sources of research grants are needed to allow cross-comparison studies of cities and regions. These should be set up with support from national governments, devel­opment banks and private foundations. This would require large sums (one of the reasons that the multistakeholder panel was taken out of the final NUA draft).

4. Supporting transdisciplinary research and synthesis. Communities with relevant knowledge must guide urban-development policy over the short and long term. Trans­disciplinary research must be supported through new sources of urban science fund­ing and organizations. Existing knowledge should be synthesized and fed into policy­making at all levels.

5. Improving access to science-policy arenas. Urban scholars must have a clear role in the policy platforms that are emerging in the NUA and the wider multilateral system, such as the links forming between the urban SDGs and the Future Earth Urban Knowl­edge-Action Network.

The bottom line is that they believe it is imperative to scale up urban research and foster a scientific leadership to direct and critique global urban policymaking.