Are Green Cities Symbols of Luxury? – by Ronny Agyei Yeboah

The term ‘green city’ or ‘sustainable city’ to many in the developing world is merely rhetoric of the affluent. The focus is often directed at exploiting our natural resource, creating more jobs, driving out extreme poverty, and improving standards of living of the masses with little concern for the environment. It’s not surprising that developing countries often battle International Environmental Agreements (IEAs) for special waivers when it comes to their implementations.

The premise that economic progress and environmental welfare are inversely related, at least during the initial stages of development, is being held by many policymakers in developing countries. Scientific hypotheses such as the Environmental Cruznes curve postulate a U-shape relationship between environmental welfare and economic growth: environmental damages increase in the initial stages of per capita income growth, attains stability and then starts declining. These ideas help explain why the concept of green cities is less appealing in the developing world. Therefore, there should be an in-depth probe to find out whether the ‘green city’ concept hinders economic progress.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP’s) 2011 release “cities: investing in energy and resource efficiency” defines Green Cities as those cities that are environmentally friendly. Further, the report identifies a city to be a system function by the interactions of three main components: social, ecological, and economic. Being aware of the equal importance of these components, it will be unfounded to presume that an environmentally friendly designed city will necessarily undermine economic and/or social progress. Instead, green cities are designed to promote economic advancement, social progress, and environmental sustainability. Considering an example, the unemployment rate of 2.5% in the Green City of Freiburg in 2015 was found to be the lowest unemployment rate in all major cities in Germany. To be specific, this rate was lower than Baden-Württemberg regional rate of 3.1% and German national rate of 4.6% in the same years as reported by the Eurostat. By promoting the concept of green cities, developing countries like Ghana will in the long round, develop economic, social, and ecological resilient society to the benefit of the public.

Economically, urban growth in environment-friendly cities in the developed world results in economic growth benefits such as agglomeration economies, low infrastructure costs, and reduced congestion. The opposite is true in non-environmentally friendly cities commonly found in developing countries. Barney Cohen in his 2006 study, “Urbanization in developing countries: Current trends, future projections, and key challenges for sustainability” observes that rapid and chaotic urbanisation can outstrip the economic benefits that come with higher density. Non-environmentally friendly cities require relatively high revenue and capital to provide basic essential services to their inhabitants. The required capital is charged on businesses and individuals in the form of higher levies and taxes, demonstrating the false claims of economic progress over environmental welfare.

Socially, the promotion of green city concept has a greater propensity to ignite job creation and advancements in innovation. Development in the areas of renewable energy, waste management and recycling, urban agriculture, efficient transportation, and green construction are commonly associated with green cities. These developments attract investments in the areas of academic and research, eco-tourism and recreation, and green businesses in general. Citizens become more socially and environmentally concerned. For example: they look closely at how many cases of cholera and malaria are prevented and how many hospitals units have been made available. Citizens of environmentally friendly societies expect to enjoy an improved quality of life over non-environmentally friendly communities.

Environmentally, green cities promote environmental integrity in urban centres in developing countries and can be a principal tool available to city authorities and planners. The significance of environment-related challenges in cities in developing countries by no means can be trivialised. As an evidence to support this, the World Bank in 2003 reported that pollution-related health cost alone in cities in many developing countries map to as high as 2 % to 3% of GDP with a significant outlier of 5% in the case of the capital city of Senegal, Dakar. In a more recent time, the BBC reported in December 2016 on an importation of dirty fuel by Ghana and four other African countries and noted that the negative consequences of this on public health in these countries. In addition to air pollution, cities in developing countries face critical environmental challenges such as urban stream contamination, urban vegetation and biodiversity loss, and urban environmental apathy. There is no gainsaying the fact that, adopting models of green cities in urban planning in developing countries will go a long way to significantly promote city welfare and also help improve the quality of life in people.

Considering the economic, social, and ecological benefits accompanying the promotion of environmentally friendly communities, it’s a serious disincentive to the welfare of the ordinary citizen when policy makers argue that green cities are merely rhetoric of the affluent. Policy makers in developing countries must recognise the importance of the green city concept and effectively prioritise it in their planning process. It is essential to note that to achieve green city status is not an event; instead, it is a process which needs to be designed, supported, and promoted by city authorities and city developers. And if authorities in developing countries will adhere to the promotion of green cities, we shall soon come to the realisation that no possible present sacrifice devoted to this purpose is comparable to the long-term economic, social and ecological benefits that will be accrued to our society.

Ronny Agyei Yeboah
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