Transforming cities, transforming lives

IIED and partners are developing, testing and disseminating a scalable approach for achieving key shifts in urban development to put cities on a path to achieving climate justice and zero-carbon emissions by 2050.

Began January 2021
Anna Walnycki

Principal researcher, Human Settlements research group

Urban poverty
A programme of work showing how IIED is working to reduce urban poverty and to change misleading views about urbanisation.
Aerial view of Villa 20, Buenos Aires

The IKI-TUC programme will integrate decarbonising measures into an established participatory slum upgrading programme that is already under way in Villa 20, Buenos Aires (Photo: copyright Instituto de la Vivienda de la Ciudad)

While cities account for 75% of global carbon emissions (PDF), at the same time they are deeply affected by the climate crisis. Extreme heat events, water stress, deterioration of natural assets and air pollution lower the quality of life of residents and put severe stress on infrastructure. 

There are no quick fixes for solving these challenges. Solutions such as alternative construction techniques and better public transport are steps in the right direction, but if they are designed as siloed technocratic processes that are implemented in a top-down manner, they will fail to create lasting change or reach many people.

To build more sustainable, equitable futures, cities must reconfigure their deeper social, technological and political systems that are currently reinforcing high-carbon, resource-intensive urbanisation.  

Such a process requires holistic visions for desirable urban futures for all actors, from urban inhabitants to city governments to investors. Decarbonisation, social justice and quality of life must be interwoven and at the centre of urban transformation. 

This ‘Transformative urban coalitions’ project, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety under its International Climate Initiative (IKI), seeks to change structures and values by shifting the mindsets of urban citizens and decision-makers, and by building new urban coalitions to implement strategies that lead to socially inclusive, zero-carbon cities. 

What is IIED doing?

The World Resources Institute, the United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), IIED, IIED America Latina and German Development Institute (DIE-GDI) – will work closely with local partners to establish new models of coalition-building and governance through five 'urban labs' in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. IIED America Latina is a longstanding sister organisation to IIED.  

The IIED team is developing a ‘community of transformation’ that promotes horizontal learning within and across cities and promotes strategies that aim to achieve just and inclusive decarbonisation with a focus on housing, settlement upgrading, transport and urban planning.

This process will be enhanced by research, tailored communications and capacity-building activities. The project will also utilise film and art to inspire new narratives of attractive urban futures and shift mindsets towards sustainability. 

Finally, models of coalition-building and governance will be scaled up to other cities and countries, ultimately to influence global agendas for sustainability transformations.

In April 2024 IIED-América Latina produced a short video showing how local residents of Barrio 20, Buenos Aires, have incorporated decarbonisation and adaptation measures into a participatory redevelopment process of the neighbourhood.