In our highly urbanised world, cities create problems as well as provide solutions. Many of humanity’s challenges exist at city level. Cities are an unsustainable source of resource depletion and pollution, and account for 40 per cent of global energy consumption and over 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet, there are solutions. Technology and social know-how is 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.

Why then do we not see a massive uptake of this technology and know-how?

Understanding the problem: blame government

Partly governments are to blame for this slow uptake. It is now possible to construct buildings that generate as much energy as they consume, for instance through the instalment of solar panels and high performing insulation. Yet, building codes often do not require builders to use such high performing materials.

At the same time governments are very lenient towards existing buildings. While existing buildings are often very energy inefficient, governments do normally not mandate that these be improved. As a result new buildings are less energy efficient than they could be, old buildings keep wasting energy, and the owners and users of these buildings keep wasting money.

At the same time there is a problem of scale. Policies that seek to address climate change often focus on the national level. They seek to cut greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption across sectors and not where a significant part of emissions are produced and energy is consumed: in cities. On the one hand this does not challenge cities to implement local policies; on the other hand cities that do voluntarily implement such policies do not feel that these are backed up by national ones.

Understanding the problem: blame the industry

That being said, the building industry is also to blame for a slow uptake of technology and social know-how. What is known as the vicious circle of blame is  perhaps best illustrated in the built environment.

Consumers tend to blame builders for not constructing sustainable buildings. Builders blame property developers for not commissioning such projects. Developers blame banks for not providing funds for such projects, while banks complain that consumers do not demand sustainable buildings.

On top of that, the sector misses an economy of scale that 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. Finally, the sector is very conservative, where many vested interests stand in the way of change towards more efficient buildings. There are of course exemptions.

Solutions: innovative forms of governance

While this is not an uplifting analysis, my studies and those of others show that there is hope. All around the world governments, firms and citizens are involved in innovative governance tools that seek to overcome the problems with existing building codes and the barriers that the building sector faces.

A typical example is the city of Amsterdam’s Investment Fund, which recently won a prestigious City Climate Leadership Award. This revolving loan fund provides funding to development and retrofit projects that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but cannot find funding elsewhere. Recipients pay back the fund to the city of Amsterdam, with interest to cover the cost of managing the fund, after which the city of Amsterdam can then issue funds to other applicants.

I have studied more than 50 examples of such innovative governance tools in Australia, Asia, Europe and North America. I find that these are hopeful developments. They often help to find local solutions to local problems. The role of city governments in these innovative governance tools appears essential. They can often bring together different stakeholders, firms and citizens included, to work towards consensus based solutions.

Solutions are not enough

Yet, I also find that these innovative governance tools come with complications. They are often pockets of good practice in a highly unsustainable sector. More troublesome, I further find that these innovative governance tools have a rather limited focus. They predominantly focus on

  • new buildings, leaving aside the problem(s) caused by existing buildings
  • commercial buildings, leaving aside the residential sector
  • technological solutions such as solar panels, leaving aside behavioural change such as making sure that people use their building efficiently
  • urban sustainability (climate change mitigation), leaving aside urban resilience (climate change adaptation)

The way ahead: brave policymakers are needed

We now have sufficient insight that highly sustainable and resilient buildings do not have to be more expensive than conventional ones. My work and that of fellow urban governance scholars has also provided a wide range of governance tools that can help policymakers, firms and citizens to come together and find solutions to local problems.

The various pieces of the puzzle are available. I therefore argue for national and local policymakers to be brave and bring these pieces together, and start mandating similar innovative governance tools in their own jurisdiction.

Dr Jeroen van der Heijden is a senior research fellow with the Australian National University and an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam. He has studied governance for urban sustainability and resilience for close to a decade, and recently brought together insights from his work in Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience.

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  1. Hello Jeroen

    Thanks for your article, enjoyed it and agree with the ideas. I am interested in ways in which Local Government can use similar strategies even though they might be cash-strapped. I have put solar PV projects together for various levels of Government in Australia and Pacific and I believe there is enormous opportunity. Local Govt has been engaging with solar very quickly over last two years and will probably increase in coming years but need more complex and larger projects = financing. As for a compliance regime, the Aust Govt’s Mandatory Disclosure legislation from 2011 is a platform for change which is as yet largely unenforced. Interested for you to send some info through which you may see as relevant. I am an independent consultant.

    Peter Newman
    LinkedIn – peternewman1
    0422 628 854