To successfully battle climate change, urban governance needs to empower vulnerable communities – and make sure to include their ideas and knowledge into urban planning mechanisms.
The climate change battle will largely be won or lost in cities. With more than half the world’s population, cities are on the frontlines of efforts to confront this challenge. At the same time, it’s often their most vulnerable residents – informal traders and people living in informal settlements – who bear the brunt of environmental, as well as economic and political risks that impact cities.
Waste problems in an urban drainage system in Kampala, Uganda © Cities Alliance
Under a changing climate, these pressures will likely increase. Resilient cities need environmental, social, and economic systems that can withstand such shocks and stresses, particularly as measured through the eyes of the urban poor. But creating resilient cities requires acknowledging the interconnectedness of all stakeholders, systems, and activities composing the urban fabric.
Inclusive Urban Governance
To improve resilience and meet future challenges, urban governance approaches must be reconfigured towards more inclusive decision making and local-level action. Sudden emergencies, like COVID-19, offer good case studies on how localised actions, often led by community-based organisations, can both mobilise citizens and effectively respond to their needs.
Effective urban governance structures should be more receptive to knowledge uptake. Recognising and incorporating knowledge from local residents can help create responses to emergencies that better fit the experienced realities of a community and make it more resilient. But can these mechanisms work as well for a persistent long-term crisis, like climate change?
Enhancing Climate Adaptation in Cities
City-wide actions can make decisive contributions toward national efforts to fulfil international commitments, such as the Paris Agreement, 2030 Agenda, Sendai Framework and New Urban Agenda. But innovations often emerge at the community level, where local civil society organisations, with community input, find creative methods to overcome barriers and improve community resilience.
Successful urban governance lies in the ability of formal governance processes to absorb decentralised, often informal, community-led developments. This is not surprising: the quest for participation and inclusiveness has long been at the centre of urban governance discussions. Nevertheless, the emergence of new climate realities demands the capacity for quicker reactions from governments and new ways to engage and learn from citizens.
Inspiration from the Greater Horn of Africa and the Bay of Bengal
Adapting to climate change will require innovation, but above all, partnerships. The Greater Horn of Africa and the Bay of Bengal are among the regions in the world which are most vulnerable to the impact of climate shocks. In line with its vision of empowering communities, particularly in informal settlements to become more resilient, Cities Alliance is supporting local initiatives to advance affordable, accessible, and innovative climate adaptation at the community level. The projects, located in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Kenya, Somalia, and Uganda foster dialogue and engagement between local communities and local governments, and often adopt fresh approaches or use modern technologies:
- Digital storytelling is being used in Kenya1 to promote multi-stakeholder dialogue and co-create smart solutions for climate-related issues faced by residents of informal settlements.
- Not too far away, in Somalia2, civil society, local government and private actors are collaborating to develop an early warning system to provide inclusive community-based disaster risk management.
- In Myanmar3, initiatives co-created to mitigate heat damage seek to complement existing community-driven housing projects led in collaboration with the regional government.
Partnerships: Sharing What Works – And What Doesn’t
There’s no easy recipe for a successful partnership; collaboration comes with challenges. As part of our engagement to support local adaptation, we’ve introduced a peer-to-peer learning approach, where grantees can share practices, strategies, and experiences, including challenges they’ve faced. This exchange often helps reveal friction points and shortcomings, which can then be addressed.
Achieving effective and efficient partnerships is a long-term investment that can be undermined by a lack of confidence, understanding, or recognition. This can create disharmony that can curb much-needed collaboration. As one participant shared, “Civil society organisations are often left in the middle of two actors that do not talk to each other because there’s no trust.” This is where innovative approaches can help build bridges.
Collaboration can be compromised by the different paces of action taken by different constituencies. For example, it can be frustrating for people whose lives are being directly impacted by droughts, floods, or food scarcity to cope with decisions and timelines set by city regulations, especially when they have been left out of the process. But clear communication can help, said a project participant: “We try to balance the expectations from community members, being transparent and realistic with what we can achieve and our own capacities.”
Finally, it is crucial to remember – especially given the challenges of climate change adaptation and mitigation – that catalytic change is a long-term objective that goes beyond individual project outputs. As one participant expressed it: “When working with the community, we adopt a vision-based instead of a project-based approach to avoid [project] fatigue and have a clear understanding of where we’re going.”
Local Innovation in the Context of a Changing Climate
With the critical role cities will play in combating climate change, the decisions that need to be made to best face its multiple effects are complex. The call for more inclusive urban governance through partnerships is just one way to foster local adaptation, but it’s one that takes into account the reality of informality in most fast-growing cities of the global south.
National and subnational decision makers listening up to local solutions, in particular those that incorporate knowledge and views from poor urban dwellers, is still a rather innovative approach in itself. As climate change accelerates, such new ways to collaborate are needed now more than ever. And experiences emerging from the community level deserve a more prominent place in the spotlight.