City-level decoupling: urban resource flows and the governance of infrastructure transitions

30 Apr 2013

This report applies the International Resource Panel report, Decoupling Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth (henceforth the Decoupling Report) to cities. The core argument of the Decoupling Report was that a transition to a green economy will depend on finding ways to sustain economic growth rates without escalating rates of resource use. To achieve this decoupling, appropriate sustainability-oriented innovation will need to be initiated, promoted and applied on a large scale. Because the majority of the world’s population now live in cities and because cities are where most resource consumption takes place, the pressures and potentials to find ways to reconcile economic growth, well-being and the sustainable use of natural resources will be greatest in cities. Indeed, many significant sustainability-oriented innovations are already being applied at scale in cities throughout the world. This should not be surprising because cities connect a wide range of actors, networks, infrastructures, resource flows, cultures, social processes, and histories within specific biophysical and ecological contexts. Spurred on by a wide range of socio-economic and ecological threats, cities provide fertile ground for innovation and creativity. As Hajer put it: “Cities are crystallisation points within society – important entities within which people live, work and travel. … Cities create cohesion and synergy between individuals and businesses. It is in cities that inspiration is found for innovation, renewal and new levels of comfort.”

The report discusses some emerging trends within cities that demonstrate that it is possible to decouple urban development and rising rates of resource consumption, in other words resource decoupling. These trends are generated by factors that combine in unique ways in each context, including market forces, policy-driven action by various stakeholders, and both top-down state-centric and bottomup local modes of governance. These trends also show regional differences in the ways in which sustainable resource use challenges are being approached. The magnitude of the challenges calls for approaches that encourage continuous learning, improvement and tapping into the resources that are available to bring about change. These can lead to an 'energetic society'2 that recognizes, catalyses, supports, extends, trusts and reproduces the myriad of initiatives that bubble up from below as coalitions of households, communities, businesses and networks respond to the problems posed by unsustainable resource use and environmental degradation. This shift goes beyond the familiar call to 'do more with less'; cities also need to aspire to do more with more renewable and sustainable resources that will need to replace unsustainably used resources. This celebration of potential is becoming possible in cities that either provide spaces for creativity and innovation, or impose from above a new set of performance requirements that force those involved to break away from tried, tested and tired approaches to development.

The report proceeds from the following points of departure: • Global economic production and consumption is now concentrated in cities: 80% of global GDP is now produced in 1 Introduction City-Level Decoupling: Urban resource flows and the governance of infrastructure transitions 15 cities, with 60% produced in 600 of the most productive cities where one fifth of the world’s population now lives. • A second major wave of urbanisation is underway: since 2007 the majority of the world’s population of over 7 billion people has been classified as living in urban settlements, with a projected growth of 4 billion urban dwellers taking place in developing world cities between 1950 and 2030. • Global resources consumption is concentrated in cities: by the year 2005, approximately 75% of global energy and material flows were consumed in cities, which covered just 2% of the land. Given that many of the resource flows on which cities depend are finite, it follows that continuing global economic growth will depend on the decoupling of this growth from escalating resource use. However, resource flows through modern cities have typically assumed a never-ending supply of resources, so decoupling will require innovation for more efficient management of resource flows. The cases reported here confirm that this can be done with active support for sustainabilityoriented innovations, including the reorganisation of governance institutions.

This report builds on the insights of many previous reports that found cities to be an important dimension of the transition to a green economy. Its strategic focus is on the resource flows through cities and the infrastructures that have been – or should be - configured to conduct these flows. Because this theme has not been addressed in most reports on sustainable cities, inadequate attention has been paid to the economics of reconfiguring urban infrastructures whose construction and maintenance are, in turn, often the largest expenditures at the city government level. Traditionally, sustainable cities reports have focused on spatial factors (e.g. densities, mobility), energy supplies and energy efficiency, congestion, greening, pollution, wastes, and consumption behaviour. Insufficient attention has been given to the fact that the design, construction and operation of energy, waste, water, sanitation and transport infrastructures create a socio-technical environment that shapes the 'way of life' of a city’s residents and how they procure, use and dispose of the resources they require.

Environmental education and pricing mechanisms aimed at changing consumer behaviour are helpful, but when people are locked into infrastructures that influence certain behaviours, such as the absence of a separated waste recycling system, or alternatives to commuting via private vehicle, significant change is unlikely. Where much of the population is poorly serviced by infrastructure networks, as is the case in many of the fast-growing cities in developing countries, opportunities exist to design and build new infrastructures that avoid the resource- and energy-intensive approaches typical of many cities in developed countries. Indeed, continuing a business-as-usual approach in cities in developing country may well result in rising costs that will reinforce the exclusion of the urban poor even more than is the case today. As cities have grown, mainstream thinking on urban development and planning has increasingly acknowledged the link between human and natural environments. These issues have been explored in a range of 'City Reports' that have sought a synthesis of current thinking about the relationships between urbanisation and ecological change (Box 1.1). Although they had different emphases, all the recent mainstream reports recognise the links between urbanization, urban development, climate change, urban infrastructure, ecosystem services and natural resources. They call for interventions that achieve a balance between urban economic development, long-term ecological sustainability and social justice. The challenge is how to facilitate such city transitions. This report assesses socio-metabolic flows and the urban infrastructures that conduct these flows, leading to advice on how to meet this challenge in practical ways.

This report proposes six areas of focus to guide the content and pace of urban transitions: • First, demonstrating how the reconfiguration of urban infrastructures can change the flow of resources through cities. This is a new field of research, requiring learning from activities that suggest new possibilities. The solution is not a single formula or model, but rather a dynamic process of negotiating purpose, experience and learning. • Second, showing that multiple visions of urban futures are formed by coalitions of interests that are context-specific. These visions are guided by what they aspire to achieve. • Third, pointing out that visions of sustainability capture innovation in the relationships between cities, infrastructural systems and resource flows in different ways. Some may address systemic urban infrastructure transitions over long periods of time (20 years and more) while others operate over a few months or years. Innovation in relations between cities, infrastructure systems and resource flows can best be understood through projects and initiatives building up over time.

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