Urbanisation in The Developing World Against the Backdrop of Climate Change

Published on 14th February 2023

I would like to talk about urbanisation in the developing world against the backdrop of climate change.

People are on the move like never before. We are fast becoming an urban world. And the scale and pace of this change is breath-taking. By the middle of this century, it is estimated that eight out of every ten people will live in cities, with much of this urbanisation taking place in the developing world.

How we plan, design, and manage cities in the developing world, therefore, will be of vital importance, both for our fragile planet and for humanity.

In this time of rapid – and often unplanned – urbanisation, I would like to touch on three particularly daunting areas of challenge for us now and in the future: infrastructure; health; and emissions.

First, infrastructure. As cities quickly expand, there is a risk that their infrastructure will fall further behind the increased needs of their growing populations, and that the expansion will not happen in an environmentally sustainable way.

As we look at the future of urban planning, we must put clean infrastructure at the heart of the design and development process if we want any chance of mitigating further global warming. This means designing buildings which minimise heat gain or loss, using green building materials and rooftop solar panels in all future construction, prioritising walking and cycling paths, and ensuring that there is safe, quick and reliable public transport that is powered by clean energy, among other imperatives. In essence, putting sustainability into the heart of our urban infrastructure must become a core requirement as we move forward.

Second, health. Throughout the last centuries, the health of city dwellers increasingly benefitted from better access to education and healthcare, improved living conditions and targeted public-health interventions.

But today, that benefit is less apparent, with hundreds of millions of urban dwellers lacking adequate sanitation or access to clean water, threatened by heat stress, air pollution or suffering the effects of air and waterborne disease, all exacerbated by climate change.

Recognising these issues and devising public policy and service responses to address them will become increasingly important.

Finally, emissions. Although our cities occupy just three percent of the Earth’s land, they account for 80 percent of the energy consumption and at least 70 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Because cities will play such a massive role in the coming decades, they need not only to anticipate and adapt to climate change, but they must also contribute to its mitigation.

We must rapidly and intentionally reduce greenhouse gas emissions from urban centres, as well as use every available solution to draw down greenhouse gases already emitted… and here, research and technology hold huge promise to deliver on that reduction if they are championed by inspired and enlightened governments, businesses, and civil society all working together.

So, how to ensure that global city design incorporates resilience and a sustainable foundation in the future?

On an environmental level, we need to ensure that energy is produced, and natural resources and land are used in a sustainable manner.

And, on a governance level, strong leadership and competent management is key. We need integrated approaches to issues around urban planning, and dialogue to drive good decision making.

On both these levels – environmental and governance – the power of partnership will be paramount. Government, business, and civil society must work together to unlock the best possible future for our cities.

At the Aga Khan Development Network, we have first-hand experience of the value of successful partnership between government, business, and civil society.

For several decades now, the AKDN has been engaged in preserving, restoring, and developing the built environment: historic buildings and public places of practical and cultural significance.

Our work is always rooted in Islamic ethics and tradition. The Qur’an teaches us that as God’s noblest creation, humankind is entrusted with the stewardship of all that is on earth, and that each generation must leave for its successors a wholesome and healthy social and physical environment.

Stewardship of the environment, care for the natural world, sharing of resources, recognition of beauty as a divine blessing, and an environmental ethic are the principles that helped guide the planning of early Muslim cities.

So in our contemporary efforts, the goal has not been simply to honour past cultural milestones, but also to create an environmentally sustainable basis for economic and social progress.

One example of this work is the Al-Azhar Park project in Cairo. Created on the site of a garbage dump, it was developed to provide a new space that could make a major positive contribution to the quality of the lives of people in Cairo.

The Park was opened in 2005 as part of a larger urban rehabilitation initiative, which has delivered education and health services, monument restoration, infrastructure upgrading, vocational training and microcredit to the area.

As a result of the project, we have found that family earnings have increased one-third faster than in the other areas of Old Cairo, literacy rates have climbed by 25 percent and over 20 million visitors have enjoyed the Park to date.

Covering 81 acres in a densely populated metropolis, the Park provides a place where citizens can take in the serene beauty, find refuge from the summer heat, and breathe clean air amidst vegetation that sequesters 750 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.

It is a shining example of what sustainability-minded partnership can unlock for urban populations. It is our hope that we can share our experience with more partners in the future to help create environments where urban communities are set up to thrive in harmony with the natural world.

The World Government Summit, is a fantastic opportunity to raise our common ambitions, to share big ideas, and to inspire positive action in global city design to build a better, more harmonious, and more environmentally sustainable future for humanity and our planet. It is a true honour to be part of writing this next chapter.

By Prince Rahim Aga Khan

Chair of the Environment and Climate Committee of the Aga Khan Development Network

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