Politicians, be Brave! How to Transition Towards Urban Resilience – by Jeroen van der Heijden

hanging smog

photo: Craig Nagy, flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cities and other urban environments play a key role in a global response to climate change. Unfortunately, it appears extremely complicated to govern the transition towards urban sustainability and resilience. Dr Jeroen van der Heijden discusses both governance barriers and their solutions, arguing that while there are sufficient traditional and innovative governance tools available to guide a transformation towards urban sustainability and resilience, policy-makers have to be brave and start mandating these.

Cities create problems as well as provide solutions. Cities are an unsustainable source of resource depletion and pollution, and account for 40% of global energy consumption and over 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. More than half of the world’s population lives in ever growing cities. Rapid industrialisation in developing economies, ongoing urbanisation and population growth will exacerbate these problems, while growing population density within cities itself breeds human and environmental stress and multiples the impact when disaster strikes. But there is hope…

Globally, governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and businesses increasingly recognise that cities need to become more sustainable by reducing their impact on the natural environment, whilst becoming more resilient to natural and human-made hazards. But how can we achieve cities that are environmentally and resource sustainable and resilient to human-made and natural hazards?


Solutions are readily available, but…

Some will argue that we can make significant improvements through technological innovations. Others will say that we can do so by rethinking our behaviour and changing the way we use cities and other urban environments. The technology and social know-how is indeed available to facilitate a cost effective transition towards cities that are less dependent on energy, water and other resources, produce less greenhouse gasses and other wastes, and can better withstand natural or human-made hazards.

In other words, cities hold significant potential for increased sustainability and resilience. That is hopeful in itself. However, this technology and social know-how has been available for some decades. Still, most urban environments around the globe are far from being truly environmentally and resource sustainable and resilient to hazards.


…it turns out difficult to govern the transition

A number of governance problems stand in the way for a speedy and wide-scale uptake of technological solutions and social know-how. Governments often do not require in their building codes that developers and builders use the most energy and resource efficient solutions. This implies that new buildings are basically inefficient from the day they are occupied. Particularly in rapidly developing economies this is problematic as it will lock rapidly developing cities into resource inefficiencies.

Whilst a similar problem is at play in developed economies, here the governance problem relates to existing buildings. At any time, existing buildings make up the vast majority of cities and urban environments. At best two per cent new buildings are added to the existing stock, or changed within the existing stock. Building codes however often don’t mandate that existing buildings have to meet high-level energy requirements. Old buildings thus remain inefficient and polluting.

On top of that, the construction sector is highly conservative and often resists change. Vested interests stand in the way of a wide uptake of high performing building materials and designs. As well as this, the sector misses an economy of scale which could help a rapid transition towards more energy efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions: most buildings are a one-off project, not only including a unique design but also a unique project team that has never worked together before.


Getting governance for urban sustainability and resilience right

In my new book I argue that getting governance right is a third part of the puzzle of how to improve urban sustainability and resilience. Yet, current approaches to governance are vast, and literature on this topic is rich and very varied. I suggest a simple structure to better understand three main approaches to governance, and the tools that are available to governments, business and civil society groups and individuals to govern urban sustainability and resilience.

Each of the main chapters of the book addresses a particular approach to governance:

  • Direct regulatory interventions (Chapter 2), which discusses the traditional tools governments have been applying for a long time. These are direct regulation, subsidies and other market interventions. I also discuss novel applications of these tools.
  • Collaborative governance (Chapter 3), which addresses how governments, businesses and civil society groups are working more and more together in developing governance tools. Such tools are networks, covenants and (negotiated) agreements.
  • Voluntary programmes and market driven governance (Chapter 4), which has a focus on the frontiers in governance tools for urban sustainability and resilience. These are best-of-class benchmarking and certification, tripartite financing, green leasing, contests and challenges, and sustainable procurement.

Each chapter begins with a brief review of the literature and then discusses real world examples to highlight the opportunities and constraints of various approaches and tools.

urban sustainability

Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience – Jeroen van der Heijden


Innovative governance tools: a hopeful development, but…

After discussing close to 70 traditional and innovative governance tools the book concludes by presenting the five major trends in governance for urban sustainability and resilience. In sum these are:

  • Whilst governments, firms and citizens are actively involved in innovative governance tools (collaborations, voluntary programmes, and market driven governance tools) and whilst much attention is given to these tools, much governance for urban sustainability and resilience is still traditional (i.e., direct regulatory interventions). This makes that two major governance barriers to improved urban sustainability and resilience are not addressed.
  • Governments take up key roles in these innovative tools. This is an intriguing insight as it highlights that governments are willing to think in different governance tools than traditional ones only. It is further of interest that it are especially city governments who take up active roles in innovative governance tools.
  • Innovative governance tools have a strong focus on new buildings, and less so on existing buildings. At the same time they predominantly focus on the top-end of the commercial property market and much less on the lower end of this market or the residential property market. This implies that only a small niche market is targeted by these tools.
  • Innovative tools further have a strong focus on the uptake of innovative technologies, but much less on a change of behaviour of building occupants (e.g., by highlighting how they can easily reduce energy and water consumption). This again makes that a major potential of improvement is not addressed through these tools.
  • Finally, innovative governance tools have a strong focus on urban sustainability, but hardly on urban resilience. Hopefully the examples around urban resilience will inspire to start similar tools for urban resilience.


…more mandatory action is required

Whilst the wide variety of innovative governance tools is hopeful, there are some concerns. These tools seem to address a very small niche market in the construction sector. More mandatory requirements appear necessary if the lessons learnt through these innovative tools can be scaled up.

The problem with mandatory tools, of course, is that it will take a very brave policy-makers to propose these. Her voters will unlikely appreciate compulsory retrofits of existing buildings, and the building sector has strong interest groups that will likely lobby hard against proposed changes.

I hope that the wide range of governance tools that I discuss will be inspirational to practitioners and policy-makers in this field. The lessons drawn discuss opportunities and constraints of the various governance tools discusses. The theoretical structure of these chapters will be of interest to scholars who work on the edge of urban planning and governance and are interested in the opportunities that particular governance tools provide in achieving urban sustainability and resilience.


As Rajendra Pachauri , Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), noted about this book: ‘This book is a rich repository of knowledge and information on this subject of growing relevance’.


Van_der_Heijden_Jeroen_3Dr Jeroen van der Heijden (1977) is an Architect by training (MSc) and holds a PhD in public administration. He is a senior research fellow with the Australian National University, and an assistant professor with the University of Amsterdam. For over a decade he has studied how cities around the globe can best be governed towards higher levels of sustainability and resilience. In his research he is supported by the Australian Research Council and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research who awarded him prestigious early career research grants – the DECRA (2014) and VENI (2011) awards respectively. His work has resulted in four books, over 30 articles in peer reviewed journals, and a wide range of publications for a policy and practitioner audience. He maintains a website and a blog where he regularly reports on his work and research findings.

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