The top 5 cities stories in 2016

Air pollution, climate change, and above all, Donald Trump: City leaders had many battles to fight this year. But they forged on, with the help of global alliances and smart technology.

shanghai smog boats
The smoggy skyline of Shanghai, China. Air pollution is a “silent killer”, which can increase the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory diseases such as asthma. Image: Pixabay

Cities, which are responsible for three-quarters of all global emissions and 70 per cent of energy consumption, have long been considered a crucial part of any solution to climate change.  

This year, the importance of cities leading the fight took on renewed urgency with the election of climate denier Donald Trump as the next president of the United States—a development that dims the prospects of national-level climate action from the world’s second largest carbon emitter. 

City leaders stepped up to the task. They forged global alliances to fight climate change and build resilience against stress factors like rising temperatures, growing populations, and natural disasters; they waged battles against air pollution, an increasingly debilitating problem in developing and developed countries alike; and they devoted millions to technology that can make cities smart and sustainable.

Here are the top 5 cities stories from 2016.  

1. In a Trump presidency, US cities offer hope

The election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States cast a pall of doom over the global climate change community—the president-elect is a climate denier, and has threatened to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement.

Almost instantly after Trump’s election, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg penned a defiant editorial saying that city officials would not relent on climate action, no matter what the Trump administration did. 

Cities in the US also rallied together to pre-empt and counteract Trump’s efforts to roll back US climate action. The mayors of 37 US cities including Los Angeles, Boston, New York City, and Austin penned an open letter to Trump to support funding for cities to pursue sustainable growth, expanding renewable energy take-up, and tax credits for clean technologies.  

In their letter, mayors underlined that they were determined to “forge ahead even in the absence of federal support”; many of them are already pursuing targets such as 100 per cent renewable energy, building up resilience to floods, and using technology to make cities smarter and more sustainable. 

But they urged Trump: “As our incoming President, as a businessman, and as a parent, we believe we can find common ground when it comes to addressing an issue not rooted in politics or philosophy, but in science and hard economic data.”

Mayors from Sydney, Mexico City, and Vancouver and other international cities also offered their support to their US counterparts, noting at a December summit in the Mexican capital that they too had dealt with “very difficult governments”, but managed to accomplish “an incredible amount”. 

2. Urban alliances against climate change 

In June, more than 7,100 cities from 119 countries across six continents formed the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, the world’s largest alliance to combat climate change.  

The Covenant, which represents 8 per cent of the global population, is the result of a merger between a European Union Compact of Mayors and a United Nations backed counterpart. It will allow mayors to exchange information on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and will also provide cities a platform to share relevant data and compare achievements.  

Another iconic global urban alliance also crossed a critical threshold in May. The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) programme welcomed 37 new members, bringing the total to 100 less than three years after the programme was launched. The latest additions include Lagos, Jakarta, Seoul and Nairobi, and Toronto. 

As members of the 100 RC network, urban cities will receive funding of more than US$200 million from the Foundation. Each of them must identify a “chief resilience officer”, create a blueprint for how it will tackle pressures such as climate change, disasters, and urban growth.

The 100 cities milestone is important; but as Michael Berkowitz, president of the programme, told reporters in London in May: “It feels like the work is only just beginning”. 

3. A New Urban Agenda for sustainable, equitable cities 

In October, 30,000 members from national, city and regional governments; funding agencies; UN organisations; and civil society met in Quito, Ecuador for the third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. More commonly known as Habitat III, the event was the first time in two decades that the international community came together to take stock of urban trends and their impact on people. 

The outcome document from Habitat III was the New Urban Agenda. Much like the Paris Agreement, the document is a global deal. It charts a roadmap for cities to develop sustainably and equitably, offering guidance on issues such as urban policy and legislation, resilience, and socio-economic issues such as inequality, among others. 

While 167 nations unanimously adopted the New Urban Agenda, a non-binding global framework, the document received a mixed reaction. Observers praised the framework’s emphasis on the need for strong local government and a progressive view of equity and rights, but criticised its lack of specific actions on how to achieve its goals, as well as its lack of mechanism for monitoring progress by countries.  

As Michael Cohen, former World Bank urban affairs specialist put it: “It’s easy for governments to sign something that is not enforceable. It doesn’t have much bite. It talks a lot about commitments but has no dates, places, or numbers.” 

4. Cities vs pollution

Cities across the globe continued to struggle with record levels of air pollution, one of the biggest threats to the health and well-being of urban dwellers. A report released by the World Health Organisation in May showed that increasing air pollution, especially in poor cities, was driving up the risk of stroke, heart disease, and lung cancer.

The report also found that more than 80 per cent of people living in urban areas where air quality is monitored are exposed to unhealthy air quality levels. 

Beijing issued its first air pollution red alert of the year in mid-December, which activated the city’s rule that half of all cars—chosen according to their number plates—were not allowed on the roads, construction sites had to be closed, and industrial plants had to limit or stop production. 

In November, New Delhi experienced its worst bout of smog in 20 years, with levels of airborne particles climbing to 16 times the safe limit. In response, city officials closed schools, suspended all construction work, and shut down a large coal power plant on the outskirts of the city for a few days. 

Other cities also took major steps to battle air pollution. The mayors of Paris, Madrid, Athens, and Mexico City in early December announced plans to ban diesel vehicles from city centres by 2025; diesel fuel use is a major contributor to urban air pollution. Paris, suffering its worst winter air pollution in 10 years in early December, made all its public transport free and restricted cars for two days—an unprecedented step. 

The French government also announced in December that motorists in high-pollution areas would be required to display a sticker verifying that they are “clean” cars in January 2017. 

5. Smart cities on the rise 

The global push towards integrating technology into cities to make them smarter and more sustainable picked up pace, with countries and companies spending millions on projects to install technologies such as sensors, wireless communication, and data analytics. 

India, which has an ambitious plan to develop 100 cities across the country into smart cities by 2022, forged on with its Smart Cities Mission. The government in September selected 27 new cities to receive funding for infrastructure projects, including Agra in Uttar Pradesh, Madurai in Tamil Nadu, and Nagpur in Maharashtra.

The September announcement brought the total number of cities where implementation of the Smart City Mission was underway to 60. However, activists warned that the technological revolution in these cities could have a severe human cost, as it would forcibly evict tens of thousands of slum dwellers from their homes. 

In Australia, the city of Springwood near Brisbane, Queensland, announced that it would transform into a new high-tech smart city; while a private developer called Consolidated Land and Rail Australia (CLARA) in July announced plans for eight new smart cities and a high speed rail connecting Sydney to Melbourne. In December, the Federal government announced A$50 million in funding for research and development on smart cities.

Further afield, ScotlandFinland, and even Bangladesh, announced plans for new smart cities. Bangladesh’s project, known as Purbachal, will be the country’s largest planned metropolis, and debut in 2018. 

Given the breakneck pace at which smart cities are growing worldwide, market research firm Gartner said in December that it expects nearly half of residents in large cities globally to benefit from smart city programmes

This story is part of our Year in Review series, which looks at the top stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene in each of our 12 categories.

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