Cities account for 75% of global carbon emissions. Meeting global emission goals will require city leadership. At the same time, cities are deeply affected by the current climate crisis. Extreme heat events, water stress, deterioration of natural assets and air pollution are lowering the quality of life in cities and putting severe stress on infrastructure.

There are no quick fixes for solving these challenges. Solutions like alternative construction techniques and better public transport systems 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 and they will not reach major parts of the city’s population.

The new 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 mindsets of urban citizens and decision-makers, and by building new urban coalitions to implement strategies that lead to socially inclusive, zero-carbon cities.

“Urban transformation processes need to go beyond individual technological approaches and they must focus on building support through improving quality of life and equity,” said Simone Sandholz, Senior Scientist at United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS). “A new understanding of sustainable change is needed, which links improving quality of life to reducing carbon emissions. Such transformations require holistic approaches and buy-in from diverse stakeholders and citizens.”

This is easier said than done, especially in cities with large informal settlements, large disparities between social groups and insufficient data for urban planning. This is the case in many cities in Latin America, where around 80% of the population is already urban. Some cities in the region have changed business as usual through radically new approaches. Curitiba and Porto Alegre in Brazil, for example, introduced participatory budgeting, and Bogotá, Colombia, has become a frontrunner for new public transportation strategies to improve access across the city. These cities have shown how much change relies on new ways of working together, of involving new and more actors in planning and decision-making.

“Cities need new ways of doing things, and that means experimentation and breaking down barriers between traditional sectors,” said Rogier van den Berg, Director of Urban Development at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “The Transformative Urban Coalitions project will have dedicated ‘Urban Laboratories’ bringing both social and technical innovation together to scale climate action in five cities in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil.”

The United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), World Resources Institute (WRI), International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), and German Development Institute (DIE-GDI) will work closely with local partners to establish new models of coalition-building and governance through these Urban Labs. This process will be enhanced by transformative research, tailored communication strategies and capacity-building activities.

“There is an opportunity for us to work with informal communities, local governments and city stakeholders to co-produce interventions that lead to greener, more inclusive cities,” said Anna Walnycki, Senior Researcher with the Human Settlements Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

To build more sustainable futures, cities need to reconfigure their deeper social, technological and political systems that are currently reinforcing high-carbon, resource-intensive urbanization. Such a process requires holistic visions for desirable urban futures for all actors, from urban inhabitants to city governments to investors. Decarbonization, social justice and quality of life must be interwoven and at the center of urban transformation and this is the starting point for the Transformative Urban Coalitions project.

“With the pilot projects in Mexico, we aim to bring co-participation and integrated planning into action that will allow these cities to move towards a greener future,” said Pablo Lazo, Director of Urban Development and Accessibility at WRI Mexico. Other pilot projects will take place in Teresina and Recife, Brazil, and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The project will also utilize 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.

“Any pathway to urban sustainability must be co-created with local communities, addressing their daily challenges such as congestion, heat, or floods, and addressing historic needs such as the lack of quality housing and basic infrastructure,” said Henrique Evers, Urban Development Manager at WRI Brasil. “Transformative urban coalitions can help create better futures at both the global and local scale.”

Christian von Haldenwang, Senior Researcher at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), added, “One factor will decide the success or failure of our global transformation towards sustainability. Not finance, not innovation, not technological progress; it is our capacity to agree on joint action and to mobilize our resources behind a common goal. And cities are the places where such action needs to come about.”  

To learn more about the Transformative Urban Coalitions project, please visit: