Global Geneva Special Report

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Getting smarter in Geneva about cities
— and meetings

A Global Geneva Special Report for subscribers to our free email newsletter (4200 words). Link updated 16 October 2020

Ironic, it might seem, to hold a conference on smart cities in Geneva, especially with the title "affordable housing and urban infrastructure", when hardly anyone can find the apartment they want at prices below exorbitant, whose streets can record pollution levels to match Los Angeles, and where the expensive transport system defies comprehension.

Equally crazy, it might seem, to hold a debate on smart buildings in the Palais des Nations, the epitome of the dumbed down edifice, with meeting rooms that are about as bad as you can make them for dialogue, uncomfortable offices, dark corridors that lead nowhere and a security system that keeps out everyone but terrorists.

Nevertheless, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) delivered some unexpected insights in a crowded Room VIII during its session on Sustainable Cities and Communities on 1 October 2019.

By Peter Hulm

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goal 11 commits governments to "make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable."

The 56-state UNECE organized the 80th session of its specialized committee on urban development as a Sustainable Cities Week. It notes that "at least 100 million low- and middle-income people in the UNECE region are housing-cost overburdened; they spend more than 40% of their disposable income on accommodation. It is estimated that 52.08 million people in the EU cannot keep their homes adequately warm and 41.74 million face arrears on their utility bills."

Convening a Forum of Mayors

The Committee, established in 1947, decided to convene a Forum of Mayors in 2020 and 2021 to share best practices and dialogue. UNECE Executive Secretary Ol'ga Algayerová points out that 75% of the region's population lives in cities (it includes the U.S. and Canada).

The first Forum will be dedicated to climate action in cities, the Committee decided. "Today, cities consume roughly 60% of the planet's energy and generate 70% of greenhouse gas emissions and waste," UNECE notes.

Erion Veliaj, Mayor of Tirana, enthused: "Elevating the mayors' agenda, the city agenda, to the UN level really gives a tool for mayors to advocate better to their own national governments the great ideas that are coming from cities."

...and a Ministerial meeting on sustainable housing

The Committee also decided to convene a Ministerial Meeting in October 2021 to discuss the implementation of the Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing and the UNECE Strategy for Sustainable Housing and Land Management 2014-2020.

Gothenburg Protocol for clean air now covers fine particulates

The 2012 amendments to the 1999 Gothenburg Protocol for cleaner air and climate action entered into force on 7 October. (LINK)

It covers major air pollutants including for the first time fine particulate matter, "a major concern in most cities around the globe", observes UNECE. "These obligations represent significant reductions for this key substance, for example: 46% for Cyprus; 37% for the Netherlands; 36% for Slovakia; 35% for Greece; 33% for Denmark; 30% for Finland and the UK; and 22% for the European Union as a whole (figures compared to 2005 base levels). "


... costing less than 1/100th of a percent of GDP...

Estimates have shown that the costs of implementing the amended Protocol's emission reduction measures would be equivalent to less than 0.01% of GDP for the EU. 

"Given that the costs of healthcare and lost workdays due to air pollution are estimated at between 2.5% and 7% of GDP per year in Western Europe and to at or above 20% of GDP per year for 10 countries in the pan-European region, this makes the agreement a highly cost-effective policy solution," UNECE argues.

... and includes black carbon

"The amended Protocol marks an important step in this respect by specifically including black carbon (or soot) as a component of PM2.5. Black carbon is 680 times more heat-trapping than CO2. The agreement also includes emission reduction commitments for the ground-level ozone (O3) precursors nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds."

You might imagine the Universal Postal Union (UPU), fresh from its last-minute reprieve from the death sentence that the United States hoped to deliver, might have difficulty finding time to boast of its contribution to sustainable communities and cities.

No way. The postal service, Lovisa Selander was able to tell some 50 national, UN and civil society experts this week, is these days transforming itself into a social services provider, checking on citizens' health, offering recycle services, and combating social isolation.

The importance of an address

Even giving people a postal address is a social service, since this is often a prerequisite to obtaining many welfare and governmental services. It can also act through postal networks as a financial service for the "unbanked", the billions of people who could not hope to get a bank account (she could have mentioned Americans who cannot get a standard bank account in Switzerland but can open an international postal account).

Since it is also a major employer and user of motor vehicles in its deliveries, the postal service can also have a major impact on air pollution and the condition of the places where it is active, pointed out UPU's Sustainable Development Expert.

So there.

Housing as a human right, and livelihoods

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) castigated those who treat housing "as a commodity not as a human right" and pointed out that it had produced a report in 2018 on urbanization and human rights.

The International Labour Office (ILO) was there to point out that "cities are built and maintained by workers", and livelihoods are part of a city's sustainability, "not something else".

At the same time, Edmundo Werna of the ILO advised city planners to :

What gender means in cities

Another recurring theme in the city sustainability session proved to be the gender dimension. Christine Löw, Director of the UN Women Liaison Office, said this didn't just relate to women's fear of accessing public spaces, often because of urban design (even in developed countries 53% of women feel unsafe or very unsafe on railway platforms after dark).

At the same time towns and cities can represent better education and job opportunities for women. Hence the attraction despite the dangers.

But, she added, women want accountability mechanisms in cities to ensure gender equality commitments are addressed, training to take account of how women and men differ in the way they use public transport and public spaces — and to plan accordingly, and the engagement of women not just in politics but also as workers in planning offices.

UN Women's flagship initiative works with 27 "champion cities" in developed and developing countries to revamp urban design to make public spaces inclusive, secure and responsive to the needs of both women and men.

Reducing other crime

Reducing other crime (SDG16: peaceful and inclusive societies) as well as SDG5 (women's empowerment) is also seen as essential to make some cities sustainable, it was emphasized.

Over the past five years, the Vienna-based UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has helped national authorities and cities in Colombia, Kyrgyzstan and Mexico to carry out safety audits to help reduce crime.

Medellin, Colombia, has "achieved very positive changes" with UN help over the past four years "in reducing violence and the perception of violence by its citizens," Deputy Director Bo Mathiasen observed.

Focus on the disadvantaged and on fears, not just crimes

UNODC's new programmes recognized that safety is not just about violence but also fear of violence, and the opportunities for disadvantaged groups to access social services and employment. "We consider it to be absolutely key that [...] assessments develop a cost-effective solution that allow the decision makers to identify the participatory solution through a parcipatory and cross-sectoral lens."

DCAF, the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance, reported its programmes had tackled narcomayors and similar problems, while also establishing local police-oversight bodies.

Armed conflict is urbanizing

Charles Deutscher, speaking for the Policy and Humanitarian Diplomacy Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said: "In an urbanizing world, armed conflict and violence are urbanizing, too," with an impact on development.

He noted wars are currently affecting some 50 million people. In Yemen, four years of conflict had dropped its Human Development Index score to that of 20 years before.

Deutscher argued: "A truly resilient city is one that continues to work in bad times as well as good."

This made safety and security "the twin great challenges" for local mayors and municipal authorities in ICRC's experience, for example in Gaza.

In Rio de Janeiro in 2018 ICRC worked with local health and education authorities to develop ways of reduce the impact of violence on services. This included self-protection mechanisms for staff.

The poster child

In sustainability, Barcelona — widely considered one of the most liveable cities in the world — is the poster child, and Deputy Mayor Laia Bonet was on hand to outline its progress and plans.

For example, Barcelona is barring diesel vehicles older than 15 years and automobiles more than 20 years old. It enforces speed limits during pollution episodes (UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova noted nine out of ten urban citizens in the word breathe polluted air, and urban areas are responsible for an estimated 76% of CO2 emissions worldwide).

Next year, said the deputy mayor, Barcelona's budget will be "100% in line" with all 17 of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, and each budget line will identify its related SDG.

The hot topic for city authorities

Vehicle regulation, observed a UNECE official, is a "hot topic" for cities, and they are applying their own regulations rather leaving it to national authorities.

François Cuenot, Secretary of the UNECE Working Party on Pollution and Energy, said technologies now made it possible to force hybrid vehicles to switch to electric power when they enter cities, using the automobile's GPS (Global Positioning System), and UNECE is working on promoting this.

Taking the HEAT on bikes and walking

Another tool UNECE had developed with the World Health Organization (WHO), HEAT — the Health Economic Assessment Tool (2017, but dating back to 2007, and now 85 pages long), for "assessing the economic benefits of walking and cycling, not only in terms of the environment but also in terms of money".

Answer: it's complicated, but at least there is now a standardized procedure to follow — "really practical for cities". Or is it a solution in search of a problem. How much cheaper do walking and cycling have to prove themselves to be before authorities act to reduce the number of cars clogging the streets?

Handbook of good practices and case studies

In November 2019 a handbook of good practices and case studies from across Europe will appear on the integration of sustainable transport into urban planning. "I think that is going to be helpful to a lot of cities," he stated.

UNECE's working group has also issued guidelines on regulating for sautonomous vehicles.

E-learning crash course

UN-Habitat (the United Nations Human Settlements Programme) announced a new urban agenda platform linked up with the International Labour Organization (no links available) as well as an e-learning crash course on the new urban agenda.

7 October is/was World Habitat Day, hosted by Mexico City. WasteWiseCities using frontier technologies is/was this year's theme, and the site features its "top 20 solutions that transform waste to wealth".

230 waste projects: Indonesia and Armenia tops

It reviewed 230 team projects from around the world.

UN-Habitat placed the popular tourism venue Gill Island, Indonesia, and Armenia (rated the sixth most waste-producing state in the world) at the top of its list for innovative projects.

Money but few bankable city projects

Among the non-governmental groups, the Geneva-based World Economic Forum — a public-private cooperation organization mdash; said the corporate world reports it has "a lot of money" to invest in sustainable city ideas but could not find bankable projects. Cities, on the other hand, say they cannot get access to finance. So WEF is working on capacity-building to try to bring the two together.

Alice Charles, WEF lead for cities, infrastructure and urban services, said smart-city technology products are being tried around the world but 75% of them fail at the pilot stage. WEF has been studying why they fail and promoting examples that work.

Coalition on privacy and security in new technologies

WEF is also partnering with the Japanese government to launch a G20 coalition, officially known the G20 Smart Cities Alliance on Technology Governance, This was launching in Tokyo the week after the UNECE meeting.

The aim is to establish universal norms and guidelines for implementation of smart-city technology, for example, how technology is used in public places and promote core principles including transparency, privacy and security.

"Currently, there is no global framework or set of rules in place for how sensor data collected in public spaces, such as by traffic cameras, is used," the website notes.

Saving on school buses

The new digital world is enabling Boston Public Schools to save $5m from its $120m a year bill for children's buses, and cutting out 20,000lb of C02 emissions each day. An algorithm developed by Arthur Delarue and Sebastien Martin, doctoral students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for a BPS Challenge competition launched in 2017, reduced journeys by 1 million miles during its 2018 tests. The $5 million saved has been reinvested in other school initiatives. reports Popular Mechanics, drawing on the public platform Route50.

Since BPS buses some 25K children to school each day, and parents can select their children's school from about 10 options, and it offers several specialized services, this was beyond the scope of Google Maps algorithms.

Busing cost: $2K per student per year

For example, Emma Coleman reports on Route 50, "all elementary school students who attend schools more than a mile from their home are offered yellow bus service to one of over 220 schools, and many live much farther than that. Some schools draw students from more than 20 different zip codes. Each of those schools also had different start times, between 7:15 and 9:30 a.m., so buses might have to visit multiple schools for pick up and drop off."

She adds: "On a per-pupil basis, BPS had the highest transportation costs in the country, around $2,000 per student per year, representing 10% of the district's budget. "

Millions of variables

The millions of variables include:

 varying road widths, differing bus infrastructures (for example, the presence of wheelchair lifts or child safety restraint seats), students who require the same bus driver every year, students who have monitors, and students who have been in fights and, therefore, need to be on different buses.

It also includes the roughly 5,000 students who have a special need that requires door-to-door pick up and drop off (sometimes to non-BPS schools, as the city provides yellow bus service to students who attend charter and private schools within Boston, and to special education facilities outside the city).

From thousands of hours to 30 minutes

"Their solution replaced what had before been an incredibly laborious process, one that took ten school system routers thousands of hours to create custom routes for each child and school. Those employees still work with BPS, tracking routes that struggle with on-time performance, and managing route guidance for drivers (Google Maps isn't sufficient since it's built for cars, and 70-passenger buses can't, for example, easily make u-turns). But now, the MIT algorithm routes the entire system at once, providing a base for the human routers to tweak," Coleman reported on 12 August 2019.

...and 20% more efficient

 "In 30 minutes, the algorithm created a system-level route map that was 20% more efficient than the ones done by hand. The longer the algorithm runs, the better solution it produces, until it cannot be improved."

"Incredibly, this was done without making bus rides or walk time to stops longer," said Will Eger, the BPS senior strategic projects manager. "We now have shorter walk times for younger students and those in dangerous neighbourhoods, and we still minimized the total number of stops."

Systemwide approach

Much of the algorithm's success is derived from the fact that it takes a system-level approach, instead independently routing individual schools and then connecting those routes together. Instead, the algorithm assigns students to stops, puts the stops in order to make no student's ride longer than an hour, and then takes a multi-school routing approach.

The best solution, then, is not the one that uses the fewest number of buses for each school, but the one that most effectively recycles buses on paths to multiple schools — and the solution uses flexible integer programming that allows the district to adapt to changing policies.

Making city housing affordable

In June 2019 WEF published a 60-page report, in collaboration with PwC, entitled Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities. Its package of recommendations cover supply-side and demand-side challenges for city governments, the private sector and non-profits.

Among its proposals:

Doing good with SDGs in cities

A Project Syndicate article published by WEF on 8 June 2019 declared: "Smart cities have an opportunity to become far more inclusive."

As good examples, Charles noted that New York had analysed its score with regard to the SDGs and 16 others had done the same since in partnership with the city of New York.

She also supported the initiative led by the World Resources Institute entitled the Coalition for Urban Transitions. Its global report published on 19 September 2019 concluded that "national governments that invest in low-carbon cities can enhance economic prosperity, make cities better places to live and rapidly reduce carbon emissions".

Reduce emissions by 90% and make it pay in under 5 years

"Implementing low-carbon measures in cities would be worth almost US$24 trillion by 2050 and could reduce emissions from cities by 90%," it said. "Doing so would require an investment of US$1.8 trillion (approximately 2% of global GDP) per year, which would generate annual returns worth US$2.8 trillion in 2030, and US$7.0 trillion in 2050 based on cost savings alone. Many of these low-carbon measures would pay for themselves in less than five years."

Cities with the best work-life balance

WEF on 27 September 2019 published the kisi security firm's listing of the world's best cities for "work-life balance". Helsinki came tops. Following were Munich, Oslo, Hamburg, Stockholm and Berlin in that order.

Seventh was Zurich. The story noted:

"In Zurich, people work the longest hours of any city in the top 10 and experience some of the longest commutes."

"Access to mental health services is the second best, however, and the city enjoys one of the lowest stress levels, topped only by Munich."

It added: "Switzerland’s most populous city has low air pollution and leads the survey in terms of the wellness and fitness of its residents."

Vancouver, Canada, was the only non-European city in the top 10, with Barcelona 8th and Paris 9th. But Barcelona was definitely the warmest city.

Stressing the importance of nature in cities

At the UNECE meeting, France stressed the importance of nature and biodiversity issues in cities, and said it would be trying to lead a nature and cities agenda during the Biodiversity Convention's CoP15 in China.

Yves-Laurent Sapoval argued that we have to decide whether we want smartly-managed cities or smartly-controlled cities (with all citizens controlled) or cities escaping democratic control, such as through AirBnB, which is impacting heavily all cities.

The dangers of good transportation

Sapoval said France spent 2% of its GDP on the target of "housing for all", though it has not yet reached this goal. He pointed out that good transportation could encourage social segregation. France now had to spend 75 billion euros on rehabilitation of poor neighbourhoods built outside its cities.

He also recommended participants to look at, the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction. Buildings account for 50% of global wealth, and for nearly 40% of energy-related CO2 emissions.

"Energy demand in buildings could increase by 50% by 2060. At the same time, global building floor area is expected to double by 2050," globalabc reports. It adds, however: "On the other hand, the building sector offers the largest cost-effective GHG (greenhouse gas) mitigation potential, with net cost savings and economic gains possible through implementation of existing technologies, policies and building designs."

Pollution reduced

The UNECE's Transboundary Air Pollution Convention has reduced fine particulate pollution by 90% in Europe and 30-40% in North America since 1990, Franziska Hirsch of UNECE reported. At its 40th anniversary this year it will launch a move to spread its tools beyond this region.

UNEP reported it will be the lead agency in a new Global Environment Facility impact programme for sustainable cities. GEF's 2017 flyer on the whole programme is here in PDF. It says: "The Sustainable Cities Program is investing USD $151.6 million in GEF grants and USD $2.4 billion in cofinancing over 5 years, initially engaging 28 cities in 11 developing countries (Brazil, China, Cote d'Ivoire, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Senegal, South Africa and Viet Nam). There is a growing demand FOR innovative tools and knowledge to help them make informed decisions."

The freedom of anonymity

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reminded participants that 60% of migrants end up in cities, partly to "enjoy the freedom of urban anonymity".

Recommending UNECE's 2015 Maastricht Recommendations on Public Participation in environmental decision-making (PDF), the Aarhus (information access) Convention representative said Haifa in Israel had used its 7-stage process to assess health risks in planning an industrial zone. This led authorities to promote moving refineries out of the city, when they saw it could lead to a revival of the entire area.

Why we need systems to provide housing

The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), with over 130K members around the world, alerted participants to an RICS-published study commissioned from the London School of Economics on delivering affordable housing in 12 countries of Asia published in May 2019. The informal system of housing provision proved "largely ineffective", RICS delegate Tony Mulhall reported. "You see the importance of having structures."

Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea had a public-sector led system. Affordable housing in Japan, Malaysia and Thailand is largely private sector led, with China as a hybrid. Informal delivery was prevalent in India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines and Viet Nam.

Singapore does best

The paper notes: " Only Singapore has a system in place that can meet most emerging needs: even the scale of government intervention in Hong Kong cannot fully keep up with requirements. Japan has withdrawn from policies that directly provide such housing, while Thailand and South Korea depend heavily on the private sector."

The RICS delegate Tony Mulhall then distributed statistics showing that Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea have the highest GNI per capita (indicating the largest disparities between incomes) but have also been the most successful in delivering affordable housing.

Models not transferable

"The scary thing," he said, is that South Korea also had the worst record on CO2 emissions, followed by Singapore, Japan and Malaysia. But World Bank policy is that economic development lifts everyone out of poverty and delivers housing. "We can't use the Korean model and transfer it across to India."

It is imperative for cities to influence people at the national and international level. "Once this [World Bank] economic mode is put in place, it is very difficult to intervene at the level of environmental regulation," he argued.

Centre of excellence

Helge Brattebø, Director of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Sustainability Programme, reported that an agreement had been signed that morning to create a UN Centre of Excellence in Geneva on advancing sustainable housing as a foundation for urban development, the fifth CoE to be created by UNECE after Tirana, Vienna, Tallin and Glasgow.

One of its aims is to "connect local needs to a global knowledge hub, solution providers and funding opportunities".

Trees in Cities campaign

On 21 September UNECE launched its Trees in Cities Challenge, enlisting four Mayors (now eight, see update below) to commit to planting more trees in their region by the end of next year.

Apart from storing CO2, trees limit urban heat islands, and " can increase surrounding property values by an estimated 2-10%", UNECE notes.

Reduce air conditioning by 30%

It also says: "Strategically planted trees can cool the air by between 2°C and 8°C, thereby reducing air conditioning needs by 30 per cent. A single tree can absorb up to 150 kg of C02 per year and help mitigate climate change. Trees also help control land erosion, reduce landslides and control surface water, and help mitigate flood damage."

Update 13 December 2019: Mexico City has joined the Trees in Cities Challenge, pledging to plant 8 million trees and shrubs by the end of 2020, UNECE reports. It joins the cities of Tirana (Albania), Bonn (Germany), Helsingborg (Sweden), Victoria (Canada), Barcarena (Brazil), Vancouver (USA) and Podgorica (Montenegro)

Sustainable cities conference

Perhaps typically in the silo-ed UN environment, the World Bank news site highlights only an international conference in São Paulo, Brazil, a few days before, on 16-20 September 2019, that brought together 200 participants from 40 cities to discuss sustainable and resilient cities.

The 3rd Global Meeting of the WB's Global Platform for Sustainable Cities (GPSC) issued a Call to Action known as the São Paulo Statement covering much the same topics as the UNECE meeting: carbon neutrality, local biodiversity action plans, integrating the environment into city planning, bringing nature closer to people, and championing social inclusion (LINK).

... and not forgetting Geneva

The Geneva meeting even heard about its own city, via the Director of the University's Global Environmental Policy Programme (GEPP), Alexandre Hedjazi.

In line with the university's solution-based teaching methods, his students studying urban sustainability connect with their peers online across the world through Swissnex to monitor air pollution. They are also encouraged to have contacts with the local authorities to inform and learn from officials: "They have to be active and engage policymakers and not be observant only [...] so that science does make a difference." This is complemented by an urban futures lab and workshop as part of a new master's degree.

GEPP has co-organized, with UNECE, UN-Habitat, UNDP and locals, international training workshops for policymakers in Albania, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine on evidence-based policies for sustainable housing and urban development.

How our city rates

To be fair to Geneva, the city does better than most Swiss towns in providing overnight shelters for the homeless.

If you happen to be poor enough to get a subsidized apartment in Montbrillant, you live in one of the city's most liveable areas.


The city has lots of hidden parks, though these are mainly for admiring from your park bench, not use [Parc Budé in Petit Sacconex is an exception]. The lakeside has marvellous paths for walkers and joggers, provided you don't breathe the fumes from the nearby main road (see Rolle for a counter-example). There are still some questions its planners can answer:

...and suggestions for smart meetings

The next UNECE project might be a "smart meetings" programme, developed from this session. My proposed agenda:

  1. No one delivers a speech that just spells out what their organization is doing. This content should be in a document available online before the meeting (preferably at least one week before). I spent a lot of time web-searching for documents to tell me exactly what people were talking about, and too often found nothing. Delegates wouldn't have to pretend they have written — or have knowledge of — the programmes referenced in speeches they sometimes have difficulty in reading.
  2. When someone has some future event/action to report, they should put it online on the meeting documentation page.
  3. Each speaker should make equal time for questions (e.g. 5 minutes for keynote speeches and 3 mins for standard addressses: no problem if you post your info on the meeting website).
  4. Meeting rooms should be physically designed for discussion not lectures (the new building does better than the original Palais for this in its two main [semi-circular] rooms).
  5. Make available recordings of each meeting, in all languages available. They are broadcast within the room, anyway, so it would be easy to hook up a recorder, and saves people like me from having to improvise with my recording equipment to make sure my notes are accurate.


H3: Habitat III Regional Report: Housing and Urban Development in the UNECE Region. 2017.


16 October 2020:Geneva Cities Hub: the urban dimension of International Geneva (LINK)

26 May 2020: Why the ICRC should think twice about its work on urban violence (LINK)

13 January 2020: Global Cities in the World's Largest Democracy: Scale Without Power. Council on Foreign Relations (LINK)

8 January 2020: New Smart City near Cancun Will Include Over 7 Million Plants. mymodernmet (LINK)

25 November 2019: Why Affordable Housing in U.S. Is Built in Areas With High Crime, Few Jobs and Struggling Schools. ProPublica (LINK)