Cities are Not Cities
Importance of Developing Urban Environmental Management Systems

Hari Srinivas
Concept Note Series E-126. September 2020

Part 1: What do we know of cities? And of urban environments?

Urban areas are an enigma, an oxymoron of advantages and disadvantages, of good and bad, of happy and sad things ... On one hand, it is seen as a settlement of choice for an increasing number of the world's populance, but this is difficult to reconcile with the huge amounts of resources consumed and wastes generated.

This document focuses on the need for a broad-based, long-term and accountable approach to developing environmental management systems at the city level. The approach calls for new ways of thinking, of a shift from treatment to prevention, from technology to management, from data to knowledge.

Cities and urbanized areas are places of work and places where we stay for most of us. But what do we really know of cities and urban areas? What are the key problems and issues related to its environment? Why should we be worried of urban environments? And its management?

Rethinking Urban Links to Global Environments

Take any of today's environmental problems faced by the inhabitants of Earth, and its causes and pressures can easily be traced back, directly or indirectly, to urban areas. The forces and processes that constitute 'urban activity' have far-reaching and long-term effects not only on its immediate boundaries, but also on the entire region in which it is positioned. This is why it is important to rethink our attitudes and characterizations of 'urban' areas - both in terms of causes and effects of urban living and consumption patterns.

Cause - Effect Cycles

There is a clear cyclical link between cities and urban areas on one hand, and global environmental problems on the other. Global environmental problems - climate change, loss of biodiversity, desertification, excessive CO2 concentration etc. clearly have effects, impacts and shortages on urban areas. Demand and supply of a range of resources - Energy, water, food - are adversely affected leading to dependence on regions farther away from urban areas, and its costly transportation to cities.

Conversely, urban problems and lifestyles, consumption patterns and the growth of cities as the human settlement of choice, is having a negative impact on the global environment, as natural ecosystems adjust and readjust to increasing amounts of resources consumed and wastes generated.

Understanding the Scale of Environmental Problems

Talking of global environmental issues at an abstract generic level, while necessary, fails to make the critical link to the local level, particularly to the household and man-on-the-street. The presence of green house gases in the atmosphere per se is of little relevance to the ordinary citizen, until it is linked directly to the refrigerator in the dining room, or the increased electricity bills due to the use of air conditioners. Extrapolating a local micro activity at the individual level to its global impacts and effects, and intrapolating the effects of macro problems to the daily lives of communities is key to understanding the scale of environmental problems.

As mentioned before, the 'usual' urban problems of very high population growth, poverty and very poor people, high levels of pollution (air, water, noise, etc.), inappropriate solid waste management practices, low water resources etc. are indeed a result of larger hidden issues of bad urban development and management practices, inadequate human resources, improper infrastructure provision and management etc. We need to take a fundamentally different viewpoint of cities, and in fact, redefine cities and how we look at them. This also calls for a fresh, comprehensive and holistic approach.

Environmental Dimensions of Urban Areas

In order to better understand the complexity and spread of urban environmental problems and challenges, it is necessary to clarify the environmental dimensions of urban areas. Urban areas are usually looked at in terms of its -

  • natural environment (Resources, processes and effects related to flora and fauna, human beings, minerals, water, land, air, etc);

  • built environment (Resources, processes and effects related to human activities, education, health, arts and culture, economic and business activities, heritage - urban lifestyles in general);

  • socio-economic environment (Resources, processes and effects related to buildings, housing, roads, railways, electricity, water supply, gas etc.).

Part 2: Much of the responsibility for urban environmental management lies with local governments

It is clear that managing the environment starts at the local level - in the cities and towns that a majority of the human populations are currently living in. What do we need to do to manage the urban environment? What are the guiding principles that we need to take into account?

The Sustainability Shift

The society we currently live in is characterized by an economy-driven "mass-consumption" lifestyle. Such lifestyles create an increased burden on the environment and increased use of natural resources. How can we make the shift towards a society that is more oriented towards "sound material flows" characterized by an integration of environmental and economic goals or the promotion of 3Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle) and management of wastes. Such societies are less of a burden on the society and make minimum use of natural resources.

Local governments keenly feel the urgency to mitigate negative impacts on the local environment while simultaneously built a good quality of life for urban residents. There are a number of challenges for local governments that they need to face, including the use global trends to develop the local environment, building partnerships need to be developed among all local actors, proactive knowledge and information transfer to local stakeholders, and in-depth and intensive scientific research for policy and project development.

Expanding Urban Paradigms

Parallel to a better understanding of the various dimensions of the urban environment, are the expanding paradigms of urban management itself. The old paradigm of 'community participation' has now expanded to include many new ideas and approaches. These concepts and ideas have sought to provide critical information to communities to obtain their consent to urban projects and initiatives (informed consent); create opportunities and systems for the general public to make a choice among a range of options (public choice); clarified and open/transparent process of taking decisions, better and indepth education and awareness building, comprehensive urban governance, increased decentralization and local autonomy to empower local governments, information disclosure, greater capacity building etc.

All these concepts have sought to bring local governments closer to the communities that they serve, and create open and transparent processes of governance that creates a higher quality of life and better lifestyles.

Local governments have been placed at the center of focus of urban environmental management, and a range of tools have been developed to increase their capacity to understand and manage the local environment.

Environmental Tools available to Local Governments

For example, the World Charter on Local Governments seeks to increase capacities and institute public administration changes within local governments. Initiatives in life cycle assessment and analysis, and eco-labeling have been applied to the level of the city to target waste reduction and resource savings. Local Agenda 21 [1], a key mandate by the Agenda 21 to local governments, has created an inclusive comprehensive framework within which civil society participation and lifestyle changes have been positioned.

The Sustainability Opportunities in Cities

More recently, the increasing interest in environmental management systems that lie at the core of ISO14001 [2], has led to its application to urban environments as a whole, and to a better understanding of urban consumption and production processes' impact on the environment. Similarly, linking urban planning rules and building codes, and other initiatives, have enabled local governments to target energy saving measures, reduction in natural resource consumption, as well as mitigating the adverse impacts of emissions and pollutants.

So what can we do? We need to encourage decision-makers in government, local authorities and industry to develop and adopt policies, strategies and practices that are:

  • Cleaner and safer
  • Make efficient use of natural resources
  • Ensure environmentally sound management of chemicals
  • Reduce pollution and risks for humans and the environment
  • Enable implementation of conventions and international agreements
  • Incorporate environmental costs

Environmental Need
Reduce Material Intensity
  • Dematerialize products
  • Decrease use of non-renewable raw materials
  • Increase value of goods/services per unit material
  • Look at the entire lifecycle of a product for understanding its full/real impact and cost
  • Design for the environment
  • Composting of organic waste
  • Segregation and recycling (plastic, paper, metal, etc.)
  • Use of demolition waste
  • Reuse of grey water
  • Rainwater harvesting
Reduce Energy Intensity
  • Adopt energy efficient techniques and technologies
  • Maximise use of renewable energy
  • Increase value of goods/services per unit energy
  • Mass rapid transit system
  • Combined heat and power generation
  • Solar energy utilisation
  • Energy efficient building
  • Reduce transportation requirements (bicyling, walking)
Reduce Waste 3R
  • Reduce waste generation
  • Increase reuse, recycle
  • Reduce waste for ultimate disposal target zero disposal
  • Waste separation at source
  • Waste reduction by service sector
  • Minimization of recyclables landfilled
  • Composting of organic wastes
  • Wastes exchanged for extending resource lifecycles

A multistakeholder partnership that brings together (a) national and local governments, (b) business, trade and industry players, and (c) civil society entities.

For national governments, the focal areas for action could be:

  • To build capacity and commitment through knowledge management
  • To develop an enabling policy framework to further the 3R concept [3] including economic and market based instruments
  • To satisfy MEA obligations [4] and national/international commitments, as a part of their sustainability efforts
  • To facilitate and provide accurate and timely access to information to all stakeholders

For business, trade and industry partners the strategic elements that could guide their commitment and contribution to the 3R concept are:

  • To facilitate economic development by creating markets around 3R policies
  • To provide resources (technology, finance, and market) for facilitating the implementation of 3R policies
  • To interact and network with other entities undertaking 3R activities, including end-users and consumers, and find new business opportunities
  • To ensure proper implementation of available resource efficient technologies
  • To develop leading edge technologies and products
  • To support corporate 'green' trends and commit to a sustainable future

For civil society entities, a number of strategic elements will guide their activities:

  • To influence market trends by making sustainable and green choices in their everyday lives
  • To support development and implementation of policy frameworks by local and national governments
  • To lead a sustainable lifestyle with minimum ecological footprints [6]

Part 3: Back to the future - Cities are not the cities that we know

We return to the title of this document - "Cities are not Cities"

Six Blind Men and the Elephant
It is a story of a group of blind men who never came across an elephant before and who learn and conceptualize what the elephant is like by touching it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, "This being is like a thick snake". For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, "is a wall". Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.
Cities are ultimately like the six blind men and the elephant - we only understand and care about that part of the city that we touch or see, but fail to see the whole urban elephant.

This title is intended to provoke thought - Cities as we know it now are complex ecosystems that need integrated and cross-cutting thinking a new way of thinking. It means that the cities and their management are becoming increasingly complex and we need to find innovative and holistic ways to manage them. This will require a range of partners and stakeholders to play different roles, so that collectively, this will result in a good living environment.

Most of us come from cities and cultures that are rich in insights and wisdom of how to do things, but we increasingly stumble in understanding the complex dynamics of urban environments, much like the popular Buddhist story of six blind men and the elephant - of how we look at urban areas and fail to see the sliver lining in the tales of doom.

[1] Local Agenda 21 (LA21) is a voluntary process of local community consultation with the aim to create local policies and programs that work towards achieving sustainable development. Local Agenda 21 encompasses awareness raising, capacity building, community participation and the formation of partnerships.
[2] ISO 14001 is the international standard that specifies requirements for an effective environmental management system (EMS). It provides a framework that an organization can follow, rather than establishing environmental performance requirements ... see more
[3] 3Rs are a popular waste management concept, referring to reduce, reuse, and recycle. ... see more
[4] Multilateral Environmental Agreements are agreements signed between countries, under the auspices of the United Nations, to solve global environmental problems. ... see more
[5] These include particularly, environmentally sound technologies (ESTs) ... see more
[6] Ecological footprints are the land area needed to support a person's lifestyle (and absorb the waste/emissions generated). ... See more


Srinivas, Hari, "Urban Environmental Management: A Partnership Continuum" Chapter in Inoguchi et al. (Eds.) Cities and the Environment: New Approaches for Eco-Societies. Tokyo: The United Nations University Press, 1999, (Chapter 3, P.30-45)

Srinivas, Hari, "Cities, Environmental Management Systems and ISO 14001: A View from Japan" Paper prepared for the International Symposium on Sustainable City Development, Seoul, South Korea, 6 and 7 October 1999

Srinivas, Hari, "The Ecosystems Approach to Urban Environmental Management" Urban Environmental Management Series. Osaka: United Nations Environment Programme, 2002

United Nations, "State of Asian Cities" Bangkok: UN ESCAP, 2011

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