Cities are among the core global emitters of greenhouse gases, but at the same time many, if not all, are witnessing the impacts of climate change. For example, in January 2022 a severe heatwave struck Buenos Aires and left thousands of people without electricity, partly due to the high demand of energy for cooling. It was the most vulnerable parts of the population, for example those living in badly built houses or with fragile access to basic services, who suffered the most.
To achieve global emission reduction targets, we need rapid urban action far beyond the level of ambition that we currently witness. However, such action needs to reach, include and benefit all groups within society. It has to be socially just. In addition, it requires more than awareness of urban actors and inhabitants, it demands their participation. Project objectives must be collectively formulated in such a way that they are directly related to local needs, and do not merely address supposedly distant risks without any direct relevance to people’s own lives. Doing so is particularly challenging in settings with huge day-to-day challenges that understandably are people’s priorities.
“Climate change seems a very distant threat if you struggle with the quality of your house or are lacking proper access to transport in your day-to-day life. Nevertheless, all these challenges are linked to climate change. Finding concrete solutions that at the same time contribute to reducing emissions is very much possible, however it requires innovative approaches,” says UNU-EHS expert Simone Sandholz.
Over the past few years, urban labs have emerged as a strategy for planning and implementing innovative, broad-based, participatory urban sustainability projects. Increasingly they are being implemented across Latin America. An investigation carried out by the Transformative Urban Coalitions (TUC) project found 66 labs across 13 countries, working under different names such as urban labs, living labs, city labs and transition labs.
“Latin America has a vibrant history of citizen participation and labs in the region reflect that,” says Lucas Turmena, Project Associate at UNU-EHS.
Core topics addressed vary from efficiency in public service delivery and digitalization of public administration to improvement of mobility and collaborative construction of public open spaces. In general, labs are focused on innovation, not only in technological terms but also regarding social and governance arrangements. That is why finding new mechanisms for citizen participation and cooperation between different sectors is constantly at the heart of these initiatives.
“Urban Labs are an opportunity to include citizens in the big decisions of our cities and make them feel part of urban transformations,” explains Turmena. “It mobilizes people from different sectors, such as grassroots, academia and government, to work together on solutions that are climate-aware and put people at the centre.”
A key finding is that the labs’ topics and interventions do respond to several challenges at the same time. They often consider cascading effects on the city, including benefits for climate adaptation and mitigation. For example, implementing a better public transport system would not only benefit communities with bad access to transport, but could also help reduce emissions if adequately planned. This is the case of Laboratorio para la Ciudad, a lab that operated in Mexico City from 2013 until 2018 and designed solutions to improve the existing bus system, and at the same time enhanced road safety, and strengthened electric mobility, cycling and walking as mobility alternatives for the Mexican megalopolis.
In 2021, the TUC project started an Urban Lab in Villa 20, an informal settlement in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Urban Lab builds on an ongoing Mesa Ambiental (a municipal round table bringing together community members) supporting the ongoing upgrading process. The lab builds on already strong participatory processes that inform local decisions and interventions to support a more sustainable and climate-friendly development pathway.
However, implementation was challenging at first, as it was not possible to organize larger in-person meetings. “Being used to face-to-face meetings, the initial steps of setting up an urban lab to discuss project implementation and to co-design a catalytic project was challenging at first. However, as the sanitary restrictions allowed us, we were able to discuss the main decisions and initiatives for Villa 20,” said Florencia Almansi, Senior Researcher from IIED-AL.
On the other hand, in the last two years, local and urban stakeholders were urged to come together to establish actions to fight the pandemic and support the local population. One example from Villa 20 is the “Mesa Salud” which aims to support the local population and limit the spread of the disease, by means of health care networks, food security, communication, hygiene and sanitation practices. The initiative was coordinated between city government, community representatives and local organizations and built on established participatory mechanisms developed during the Villa 20 upgrading process initiated in 2016.
“This is just one example of how the experience and practice of cooperation can be the starting point for many other initiatives that contribute to solve multiple problems at the local level. Practices and ways of working can be expanded to deal with other pressing challenges, such as the pandemic or climate change,” says IIED-AL Senior Researcher Jorgelina Hardoy.
Urban labs are learning spaces for local communities. Citizen participation processes ensure that developed solutions speak to the real demands of the population and support their adoption in the long term, which also turns out to be a more efficient use of public resources. However, such processes and urban labs in general require not only the willingness but also opportunities to meet and discuss in stakeholder groups. During a pandemic, this is easier said than done.
“Making people work together requires trust, and building trust needs time. This investment is however worth it, as the participation of a broader range of community groups will result in solutions that are better suited for local contexts, longer-lasting and more inclusive,” says Sandholz. COVID-19 has slowed down and complicated these undertakings. But it taught everyone to be creative and find alternative ways of engagement. The multiple local initiatives that have emerged over the past two years are of huge value for other participatory processes like urban labs. They have shown that projects linked to health can be expanded towards broader sustainability. In the long run the initiatives and their organizers can be the starting point of more ambitious initiatives promoting local development, well-being and climate protection altogether.
The project comprises of United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), World Resources Institute (WRI), International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE).
Read the article on Urbanet here.