Summary report, 23 February 2022

2nd UNEA Cities and Regions Summit

Cities are the engines of the global economy, house 4.2 billion people, and are exciting hotbeds of innovation and growth. They are seen as key to achieving the global goals agreed to in the various multilateral environmental agreements and critical for sustainable development going forward.

They are, however, also facing some of the most serious environmental and socioeconomic challenges. They are heating at twice the global average and are increasingly both the cause of and bearing the brunt of climate change. While they are responsible for approximately 75% of global CO2 emissions, cities are also faced with having to deal with the effects of climate change through landslides, storms, and heatwaves, among others. Successfully dealing with these solutions is crucial to ensuring a sustainable future for all. It is against this backdrop that the second UNEA Cities and Regions Summit convened.

Introducing the theme for the Summit, Martina Otto, Head, Cities Unit, Economy Division, UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said: “By flipping the script and by connecting our cities and regions with nature, we can address the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.” Participants from around the world gathered for the Summit to exchange experiences, which showcase the multiple benefits of nature for cities for tackling the triple planetary crisis. They also focused on key levers to accelerate implementation, ranging from local to global actions, and from policy to finance measures.

Summit participants had a packed agenda, taking part in four sessions: a high-level opening segment to set the context and define nature-based solutions (NbS) in cities; Urban NbS to Counter Climate Risks and Limit Global Warming; Leveraging Sustainable Food Systems for Nature-Positive Cities; and a high-level closing session on Scaling up Solutions to Harness the Power of Nature in Cities.

Key messages emerging from these sessions included:

  • cities are key to connect global goals with the needs of the people on the ground and mobilize local communities;
  • NbS can be an entry point for local governments to address global goals and are key to future urban development;
  • designing and urban planning must move towards “growing with, not against, nature”;
  • implementation of NbS requires effective multi-level governance and multi-stakeholder approaches;
  • urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) can be an effective tool to achieve a transformation in food systems; and
  • networks and ongoing initiatives such as the Coalition on Sustainable and Inclusive Urban Food Systems continue to be critical in exchanging best practices and lessons learned.

The think piece, Urban Agriculture: A Natural Resource Perspective, was also launched during the session, with Izabella Teixeira, Co-Chair, International Resource Panel, highlighting  key policy recommendations. Other publications highlighted during the session included the UNEP publications, Smart, Sustainable and Resilient cities: the Power of Nature-based Solution and Beating the Heat: A Sustainable Cooling Handbook for Cities.

The Summit, which convened virtually under the theme “Flip the Script: Cities and Nature,” was held on 23 February 2022. The Summit was hosted under the umbrella of: the resumed fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) on “Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”; the framework of the UN Decade on Ecosystems Restoration; and the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Edinburgh Process for Subnational and Local Governments on the Development of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

The second UNEA Cities and Regions Summit was organized by UNEP, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), the UN Human Settlement Programme (UN-HABITAT), ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40), the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), WWF, and World Resources Institute (WRI). The outcomes of the Summit will be presented to the UNEA-5.2 plenary on 2 March 2022.

The inaugural UNEA Cities Summit convened during UNEA-4 on 13 March under the theme “Innovation for Liveable and Sustainable Cities: Multi-level and Integrated Urban Systems.” Key messages from the first Summit included that: engaging communities is needed to create sustainable cities; citizens should be included at all levels of policy, planning, and decision making; and a lack of urban infrastructure in many places provides an opportunity for future proof investment. Participants also discussed the need for circularity, good governance, integration, technology, and financial readiness.

Cities and Regions Summit Report

On Wednesday, Martina Otto, Head, Cities Unit, Economy Division, UNEP, welcomed participants to the second UNEA Cities and Regions Summit, outlining the objective to highlight the role nature can play in cities and regions. She underscored the pivotal role of nature in development, encouraging increased collaboration to advance the collective agenda of UNEA-5.2: “Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” Otto noted that the Summit outcome document will be delivered to UNEA, along with an opportunity to report back during the closing plenary of UNEA-5.2.

Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director, UN-HABITAT, and UN Under-Secretary-General, presented keynote remarks, reiterating the importance of the collective goal to “flip the script” and ensure that cities work for, rather than against, nature. She recognized the need for cities to utilize circular flows and be inclusive to address interconnected and complex challenges. She shared optimism that cities and regions could realize the New Urban Agenda (NUA), which envisions well-planned and well-managed cities as a tool for sustainable development.

Valérie Dumontet, Vice-President, Aude Department, France, shared enthusiasm for the effective role local and regional governments can play in determining sustainable development priorities. Adding her support for inclusive cities, she described the need for full participation of all stakeholders to work together to combat pollution, transform food systems, and secure biodiversity, in order to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the NUA. She called on leaders to be inspired and make their commitments visible and audible to “be the actors of transformation” to face the future and leave no one behind.

Otto concluded the opening session, previewing subsequent sessions, which she said would further explore the multiple benefits of, and barriers to, securing the connection between nature and cities. She highlighted the growing evidence that protecting and conserving nature makes business sense, calling for mindset change that embraces natural accounting. Otto commended the interest and support of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Green Climate Fund and shared the hope that their investments will unlock mainstream finance to support green infrastructure.

Urban NbS to Counter Climate Risks and Limit Global Warming

Moderator Jennifer Lenhart, Global Lead, WWF Cities, said cities are spaces of challenge and change, and investing in nature tackles the issues of climate change and pollution, improving quality of life in cities.

Stewart Maginnis, Deputy Director General, IUCN, in a keynote address, called for reimagining cities as living, breathing regenerative systems. He said, to futureproof cities as well as address the “immense challenges” urbanization has created, nature should be seen as an ally. He underscored that NbS are 50% more cost effective than standalone grey alternatives and 28% more productive. He emphasized the urgency of the situation, calling for a whole-of-society approach, and recognizing that each urban dweller has agency to implement such solutions.

NbS Benefits to Counter Rising Emissions and Climate Impacts: During a panel discussion, Dieudonné Bantsimba, Mayor, Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, reported that pollution and landslides are critical challenges his city is facing. He noted the approval of a framework to protect the environment in Brazzaville, including through reforestation, the creation of green spaces within the city, the encouragement of urban agriculture, and the establishment of an urban forest reserve. He also noted the banning of plastic bags and improved recycling schemes as steps taken to reduce pollution.

Eleni Myrivili, Chief Heat Officer, Athens, Greece, stated that nature is the basic, only, and most important solution to “beat the heat” in cities. Athens, she said, has learned from others cities as a result of exchanges through the Cool Cities Network and Resilient Cities Network. She highlighted the creation of green corridors, public-private partnerships (PPPs) to establish small pocket parks, and the revitalization of an aqueduct to support nature-based design and replenish an aquifer that is being slowly being depleted. She called for greater sharing of knowledge and learning between the private and public sectors.

Supriya Sahu, Principal Secretary, Environment Climate Change and Forest, Government of Tamil Nadu, India, highlighted solutions to address climate vulnerability in the coastal city of Chennai, an UrbanShift city (a city working with partners to be sustainable, integrated, and zero-carbon). She highlighted the USD 200 million investment in the successful Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust PPP. Sahu noted the importance of engaging local communities to take ownership to sustain the programme over time and introduced efforts to address legacy wastes in the region.

Ming Jiang, Deputy Director, Development and Reform Commission, Chengdu City, China, on behalf of UrbanShift, presented the benefits of integrating parks with cities, sharing how Chengdu City demonstrates the “harmony of co-existence between humans and nature.” He shared approaches to cope with the risks of climate change by, inter alia: respecting nature in the master plans of urban development through zoning strategies to protect limited natural resources; establishing infrastructure to reduce commuting and improve urban efficiency; and restoring nature and sinking carbon emissions.

Opportunities and Challenges to Scale-Up NbS in Cities: Rebecca Pow MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Minister for Nature Recovery and the Domestic Environment, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, UK, highlighted the mandatory Biodiversity Net Gain mechanism under the Environment Act 2021, which requires all new development in the UK to restore at least 10% more nature than what was present at start of the project. She explained how the Local Nature Recovery Strategy is an important tool to tackle climate change, as well as to support green infrastructure across all departments. Pow celebrated the GBP 750 million pounds investment in the Nature for Climate Fund to plant trees and restore peatlands, as well as support for the Cities4Forests programme. She acknowledged the importance of working with the education sector to ensure young people are inspired to continue such work.

Kunal Kumar, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, India, presented the collaborative effort among federal, state, and local governments to reduce urban heat in India in the context of rapid urbanization. He outlined efforts across five main pillars: mobility and air quality; green buildings, urban planning, and biodiversity; smart wastewater management; and smart waste management. He called for increased support for sustainable finance to continue to build proper governance structures and breed additional technology start-ups. Kumar shared work to establish partnerships and connect “those who want to do it with those who know how.”

Geordin Hill-Lewis, Executive Mayor, Cape Town, South Africa, spoke on the City of Cape Town’s efforts to implement NbS to improve water security. He noted that while the city is using grey infrastructure, removing alien vegetation in water catchment areas is the most cost-effective approach with the best yields. He said efforts thus far have yielded 55 billion liters of additional water each year, and at one tenth the cost of the next cheapest option for that level of yield.

Ingrid-Gabriela Hoven, Managing Director, German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), drew attention to the UNEP publication Smart, Sustainable and Resilient Cities: the Power of Nature-based Solution, which demonstrates the cost-effectiveness of NbS. Highlighting examples from South Africa and Costa Rica, she stated that NbS are an investment that pays off. She underscored they are a triple win by improving economic, social, and sustainability challenges.

Kongjian Yu, President, Turenscape, Founding Dean and Changjiang Chair Professor of Design, College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Peking University, elucidated on the concept of a “sponge city,” where cities use NbS to manage, among others, storm water surges. He noted using such solutions has been successful in water management and improving water quality over time. Noting the need to overcome “stuck mindsets” that use grey technology, he urged rethinking how cities are built, stating that by protecting and restoring urban nature, “we can protect and sustain our cities.”

Closing the session, Andy Deacon, Acting Managing Director, Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, said while cities are already extremely vulnerable to climate change, NbS can be employed to increase resilience, improve livelihoods. and combat the many crises they face. He highlighted the publication Beating the Heat: A Sustainable Cooling Handbook for Cities as a practical guide to inform city planners on what can be implemented. He called for working with cities and partners to accelerate the uptake of these solutions. Deacon stressed the need to demonstrate the benefits of using a whole-of-society approach. He drew attention to the opportunity for cities to create a stronger message on the role of NbS ahead of the 27th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP  27) in 2022.       

Leveraging Sustainable Food Systems for Nature-Positive Cities

Moderator Jamie Morrison, Director, Food Systems and Food Safety Division, FAO, framed the session by reflecting on the demand for innovation and NbS considering one-third of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. He highlighted the need to empower local governance and increase exchange with national governments, referencing the benefits of UPA, such as community and rooftop gardens.

Setting the Scene: Izabella Teixeira, Co-Chair, International Resource Panel, emphasized the call to transform the world’s food system. She explained that with 70% of food consumed in cities, it is critical to “change how, and what, urban populations are eating.” She introduced the launch of the think piece Urban Agriculture: A Natural Resource Perspective, as not only a technical and science report, but also as a political guidance piece. She highlighted key policy recommendations to create multilevel and urban-regional governance systems to develop agricultural policy. Indicating the inclusion of examples of positive achievements, she also noted that “if not done sustainably, there is also the potential for unintended harm to health and the environment.” She outlined the need to, inter alia, enhance environmental data and monitoring, and develop tailored policy guidelines for food and nutritional security, social equity (including gender), and wellbeing. Teixeira reiterated the need to “learn to grow with nature, not against it,” and said UPA is a clear solution accessible for people to “act now.”

Sustainable Food System Strategies and Actions for Nature-Positive Cities: During a panel discussion, Ana Lucía Reis, Mayor, Cobija, Bolivia, shared experiences linking conservation to the empowerment of youth and women in a region with more than six million hectares of Amazon Forest, including through a school breakfast programme. She also underscored efforts to increase local consumption of what is locally produced.

Nona Yehia, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, Vertical Harvest, presented hydroponic vertical greenhouses as a business solution aimed to grow food while increasing meaningful employment and professional development. She illustrated how the option to grow food in enclosed environments and limited areas maximizes resource efficiency while increasing the availability of local food. She called for investing in alternative approaches to transform to sustainable food systems, as well as continued partnerships between businesses, scientists, and policymakers.

Marta Suplicy, Secretary of International Relations, São Paulo, Brazil, said that remodeling food systems to take climate change into account will require major changes in power dynamics to shift the scope of food systems and restore their biological balance. She urged leaders to be open to change and to work with science and technology sectors to reduce food systems’ impact on nature.

Kate MacKenzie, Director, Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, New York City, US, outlined initiatives underway in New York City to holistically address food and the environment. She noted New York is the first US city to be transparent about its food procurement, saying these actions underscore the mayor’s commitment to food and the environment.

R. Anang Noegroho Setyo Moeljono, Director, Food and Agriculture, Ministry of National Development Planning (Bappenas), Indonesia, and National Convener of the UN Food Systems Summit, said his government is encouraging the inclusion of food system planning in urban planning. He noted efforts to improve food security and aim for a more diverse, healthier, and inclusive food system.

Honest Kessy, Director, National Food Security Unit, Ministry of Agriculture, Tanzania, and National Convener of the UN Food Systems Summit, noted steps taken to encourage local policies to support UPA. These include supporting allocation of green spaces within cities, water harvesting, and the recycling of grey water.

On enhancing multilevel governance for the implementation of NbS, Marta Suplicy identified the need to: exchange experiences; support multilateralism and international cooperation; identify effective intervention points; and maintain a focus on overcoming inequalities. Ana Lucía Reis offered experience in supporting urban gardening in schools to ensure youth can experience the benefits of cultivating organic products. She said the global pandemic highlighted the need for governments to be creative in finding solutions to increase incomes and support local farms. 

Kate MacKenzie cited Food Forward NYC as an example of a successful food policy plan that relies on multilevel collaboration, among others. Reiterating that urban spaces are a crucial entry point to transform food systems, she shared that New York City is an active collaborator in C40, a global network of mayors confronting the climate crisis. She also identified opportunities for state and federal governments to influence procurement practices by prioritizing plant-based entrees in schools, hospitals, and other government agencies.

Nona Yehia requested continued collaboration with business and urged leaders to develop international standards to measure impacts in the private sector.

R. Anang Noegroho Setyo Moeljono shared the collaborative leadership in a multi-stakeholder platform aimed at ensuring a transformation to a healthier, more socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable food system. Honest Kessy envisioned communities as the center of UPA implementation, requiring a balanced combination of policy and community involvement.

James Njiji, on behalf of Manuel de Araújo, Mayor, Quelimane, Mozambique, and UN Food Systems Summit Champion, said that the Coalition on Sustainable and Inclusive Urban Food Systems paves the way for sustainable food systems by strengthening participation from local and international stakeholders. He emphasized the need to work with local communities to deliver the tools and technology to allow for more sustainable production.

Musonda Mumba, Director, Rome Centre for Sustainable Development, UNDP, summarized the discussion, highlighting, inter alia: NbS as an entry point for local governments to act on global goals; the leadership of the Coalition on Sustainable and Inclusive Urban Food Systems for the “brilliant emerging initiatives”; and the value of education to inspire the next generation.

Scaling up Solutions to Harness the Power of Nature in Cities

During a high-level closing session, moderator Wanjira Mathai, Vice President, Regional Director for Africa, WRI, stated that while cities are often seen as destroyers of nature, this view is shifting. Underscoring that cities are the engines of our economies, she said the task is now to scale-up and mainstream these ideas to make “nature action the norm.”

All Hands on Deck: Increasing Collaboration and Finance to Scale Up Nature in Cities: During the panel discussion, Mauricio Vila Dosal, Governor, State of Yucatán, Mexico, on behalf of RegionsWithNature, ICLEI, urged policies to focus on cities’ nature and sustainability, saying these should be a cross-cutting axis of government policies. He said they have learned that the best policies use a whole-of-society approach. He encouraged cities to take ownership of NbS and join networks and platforms to share knowledge and experiences.

Carlos Eduardo Correa Escaf, Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, Colombia, drew attention to cities’ role in achieving Colombia’s dual goal of having net zero emissions and being nature positive by 2050. He outlined the BiodiverCities by 2030 project aiming to fully integrate biodiversity into cities, highlighting the partnerships established to implement it. He outlined future endeavors, including publishing a book for mayors and leaders to understand the transformative power of nature and how it can aid economies.

Valérie Plante, Mayor of Montreal, Canada, and ICLEI Global Biodiversity Ambassador, on behalf of CitiesWithNature, said the pandemic had renewed efforts to create green urban areas. She outlined steps Montreal is taking to realize NbS, saying they are implementing a climate plan, which includes greening the city through tree planting and the creation of the biggest municipal park in Canada. She urged transparency in all activities to get public buy-in.

Badre Kanouni, Président du Directoire, Al Omrane, Morocco, noted that, as of 2011, sustainable development is the right of all citizens in Morocco. He provided an overview of nature-forward activities, saying they have implemented sectoral strategies, developed new materials using recyclable materials, promoted green areas, and encouraged vertical development to avoid urban sprawl. He underscored investors are interested in these solutions.

Mohamed Bakarr, Lead Environmental Specialist, GEF, said cities are increasingly being recognized as critical to meeting the global goals under the various multilateral processes and agreements, and are rising to the challenge. He noted the sixth GEF replenishment cycle made a concerted effort to engage cities using a collaborative approach. He pointed to the importance of an integrated approach, saying NbS have clear positive effects.

On what could be emphasized to scale up NbS in cities, Valérie Plante described cities as a “thriving force to come up with innovative solutions, based on people’s needs and interests.” She expressed hope that cities, in their capacity to mobilize people, could engage more with other levels of government to help achieve their common goals. Badre Kanouni considered the expectation of further urbanization as a call to continue to think ahead for solutions, working across all levels of government, as well as with citizens and the private sector.

Mohamed Bakarr indicated that accelerating NbS in cities will require the adoption of stronger integrated urban planning approaches, including urban peripheries. He added this also requires incentives to encourage investments in NbS and capturing positive externalities. Carlos Eduardo Correa Escaf shared experiences from empowering communities to participate in policies, such as with a 20-year plan for sustainable development, planting 180 million trees, protecting land and marine areas, and fighting deforestation. He highlighted the role of education to make sure citizens understand NbS and biodiversity.

Anna König Jerlmyr, Mayor, Stockholm, Sweden, and C40 Vice Chair, said Stockholm demonstrates that a healthy environment is essential for long-term prosperity. She reported a 60% reduction in emissions since 1990 while the population simultaneously increased by 300,000 and the GDP doubled. She said the legacy of the UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 should inspire everyone that “real change is possible,” and invited all to visit during Stockhom+50.

Inger Andersen, Executive Director, UNEP, and UN Under Secretary-General, supported the role of cities to transform the relationship between people and nature by “bringing green back.” She spoke of unlocking multilevel governance and investing in nature’s infrastructure to have a positive impact. She emphasized the work needed to bring nature into balance sheets to quantify the business case for investing in nature and underscored the need to learn from local communities.

In closing, Otto announced that the outcome document will be made widely available and presented to UNEA-5.2 on 2 March.

Second UNEA Cities and Regions Summit Outcome

The second UNEA Cities and Regions Summit outcome document highlights the powerful role nature can play and urges rethinking the relationship between cities, urbanization, people, and nature. It calls for subnational leadership to employ NbS to create livable, sustainable, resilient, and inclusive cities and regions, as well as urban development in line with the SDGs and the NUA. Key issues highlighted in the outcome document include that:

  • cities and regions are using NbS to counter climate risks and limit global warming;
  • leveraging sustainable food systems can help build nature-positive cities; and
  • NbS are investments that pay off, as they are “ready-to-go,” largely low-tech, and comparatively low-cost.

Focusing on the need to address barriers to NbS, the outcome highlights, inter alia:

  • ensuring coordination and multilevel governance;
  • scaling-up investment to triple investments for NbS over the next decade;
  • improving understanding of the multiple benefits of NbS to build the case for action, including through quantifying the multiple benefits;
  • documenting and sharing successful business models and financing strategies for consistent implementation; and
  • rediscovering traditional solutions and embracing new nature solutions.

The document concludes that NbS are gaining increasing recognition as a practical, low-cost solution to address the myriad of challenges posed by urban development. If designed, planned, and managed in an integrated and efficient manner, NbS can make cities more livable and improve cities’ health, climate, pollution, and nature outcomes, and directly contribute to achieving goals set in multilateral environmental agreements.

Further information

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