Urban Environmental Management

Developing cities face the dual challenge of exploding populations and scarce resources. They will absorb just under 2 billion new residents by the year 2030. Given rapid population growth and a concurrent decrease in aid funding from central governments and international donors, city managers must find new and creative ways to provide safe, healthy cities, in which their populations will live and prosper. Lack of infrastructure, poor maintenance regimes, overcrowding, uncontrolled and conflicting land uses, and unabated pollution pose serious challenges to the ability of managers to achieve these goals. Inefficient, inappropriate and degraded infrastructure hampers economic growth as it hurts the ability of developing cities to attract investment. Lack of readily accessible drinking water, unsanitary living conditions, and continued exposure to air, land and water-based pollution continue to jeopardize the health and economic productivity of urban residents.

Urban environment management

Given limited resources and the immense challenges to be faced, there is a tendency for city managers to resort to an ad-hoc “band-aid” approach to land-use and environmental management. Instead of putting out fires, cities in developing countries need to proactively plan for addressing their three major environmental challenges: providing adequate and safe water supply; controlling pollution; and preventing the destruction of natural ecosystems. The very high cost of environmental clean-up and treatment and the irreversibility of vanished ecosystems should encourage cities to think creatively about how they can reduce the amount of pollution that is produced and the per person consumption of natural resources. Conservation, demand management, public-private partnerships in service delivery, influencing higher-polluting industries to locate where they will do the least amount of damage, encouraging less-polluting technologies, and introducing incentives and standards for improving technological efficiency are ways that cities can design and implement to achieve longer-term, environmentally sustainable, growth management goals.

Program Considerations

The Enabling Environment

Successful Urban Environmental Management (UEM) frameworks require a systemic understanding of local and regional environments. UEM programs should integrate the social, public health, political, economic and natural environment linkages inherent to the urban environment. This requires:

  • A holistic understanding of a city’s regional environmental quality and natural resource constraints.
  • A means of mapping and prioritizing key problems and designing specific interventions within an environmental action plan. UEM problems are multi-sectoral and systemically linked, yet they cannot all be resolved all at once.
  • A focus on environmentally sound economic development, balancing growth needs with the resiliency and carrying capacity of ecological systems.
  • Recognition of the local impact of emerging global environmental issues like global climate change.
  • Implementation of participatory community planning practices that include representatives from key stakeholder groups.
  • Integration of market incentives and appropriate cost recovery mechanisms that ensure timely and cost-effective delivery of environmental services.

Urban Environmental Management Systems (EMS)

Problem Definition, Assessment and Prioritization

Urban EMS must be built upon both a solid understanding of the physical features characterizing a local/regional environment and the practices, priorities, and preferences of its inhabitants.

Environmental Maps

To be most useful for planning purposes, environmental maps developed with Landsat imagery, aerial photographs, and data from soil, air and water samples should include the location and types of existing infrastructure and human settlements as well as the geographical features of the chosen locality . Where data is available, layers can be added that will exhibit the current reach of water supply, sanitation, health, fire and other city services. Cadastral maps can be entered to show property ownership. Information compiled can be combined with demographic surveys and fed into a GIS mapping tool that will act as a “one-stop-shop”, allowing city managers to view the environmental quality and services in their cities from a holistic perspective. The maps convey information that can help policy-makers make important decisions about growth and development in their cities.

Community Surveys

Community surveys, when properly conducted, can elicit important information about land-use patterns and physical features that could not be accessed in any other way. Surveys also need to account for land-use preferences? How people would prefer to use the natural resources around them. An understanding of people’s preferences is an important step that will allow planners to engage the community in a discussion around the long-term impacts of different kinds of use patterns.

Surveys can either be collected by household or through community meetings where features are discussed in group settings. Household surveys may elicit more honest information from participants. However, they are quite costly. There are also benefits to group surveys as discussion may lead to revelations that would not have otherwise been raised.

Also Read: How to Conduct a Field Questionnaire Survey?

Environmental Risk and Land Use Impact Analyses

Once the physical features of a locality have been mapped, analysis needs to be given to the compatibility of existing and prospective land uses. High density settlements, for example, are often highly vulnerable if located upon unstable land masses, steep slopes and wetland areas. Here it is important to collect specialists from a variety of fields. What is readily apparent to a health officer, may not be apparent to an environmental engineer. Here also, the input of community groups and NGOs is invaluable as they can analyze the impacts of land use from first hand experience. It is extremely important, at this point, to consider the data collected in community surveys regarding preferred and actual land use patterns.

Also read: Land Use Changes: Economic, Social and Environmental Impacts

Strategic Planning & Implementation Tools


The strategic planning process starts with a series of community meetings where existing environmental challenges are laid side-by-side with preferred use patterns and potential impacts. Key stakeholders can then begin to list and agree upon priority actions under short, medium and long-term time horizons. Priorities need to be analysed in terms of existing and potential financial resources. Once viable priorities are chosen, project road maps should be constructed and implementation can begin. If UEM is to be effective it must be fully integrated with municipal planning and budgeting processes. It is possible that individual components can be achieved through isolated action on the part of NGOs and other interested parties but the process will not be fully effective until it is institutionalized.


There are number of tools available for the implementation of EMS.

  • Regulatory frameworks established at the national level should recognize that environmental management will be largely implemented at the local level, and thus should grant some flexibility to local governments. For example, a city can enforce strict environmental standards in residential areas and simpler standards in zones where adverse impacts are not as great.
  • Capital improvement plans – linked to the budget – must consider protecting ecosystems when planning for new roads and other infrastructure. The placement of trunk infrastructure will largely determine where industries and residents locate.
  • Many cities own surplus land that could be used more efficiently by the private sector, while slowing the encroachment of vulnerable ecosystems in outlying areas. In these land deals, the city should dictate that the buyer use the land in an environmentally sensitive manner.
  • Public/private partnerships can be developed to establish and achieve mutually agreed upon benchmarks on pollution abatement.
  • Pollution fines and incentive-based programs can be designed to correct for market failures, increase the accountability of polluters and increase efficiencies at the production sites. If the government does not have the capacity to enforce compliance or if polluters cannot be not clearly identified, the inputs used in production can be taxed as an indirect way of making the polluter pay. Subsidies and capital grants can be distributed for pollution-control equipment.
  • Natural disaster and environmental hazard mitigation activities can be implemented – such as flood plain delineation, storm drainage systems, steep slope protections, and the development of building restrictions to govern ecologically sensitive areas.

Urban Slums

Slum dwellers both contribute to and are victims of urban pollution. High population densities and unregulated urban growth combined with a lack of environmental services, cause slum residents to further contribute to the poor environmental quality of informal settlements. The environmental risks of these settlements perpetuate the cycle of urban environmental degradation and contribute to greater economic and environmental vulnerability, both for low-income households and the urban area at large. Lessons learned from developing countries show that the informal settlements with the least land security also harbor the greatest in-migration and population density; face the greatest environmental risks; and have the least coverage of urban services. Without effective property rights and legal or de facto recognition of informal settlements, the urban poor have neither the incentives nor the proper legal channels to reinvest in improving their communities and to strengthen the social networks necessary for community environmental planning and upgrading. Effective EMS planning and participatory slum upgrading projects can lessen the environmental costs of informal settlements and mitigate future slum creation.

Role of National and Local Governments

Governmental authorities at all levels struggle with the challenges of urban environmental planning. Local, state/provincial and national governments should work together to find innovative ways to encourage, finance, and implement urban environmental plans. Processes designed to decentralize urban EMS should allow for an appropriate level of subsidiarity, devolution of both authority and financial resources, to ensure solutions from the lowest appropriate planning level. National and regional governments should be forward thinking in establishing a regulatory framework supportive of longer-term planning horizons. At the same time, they should engage local governments in a dialogue to define and prioritize environmental challenges. Local governments, in turn, need to solicit citizen participation in defining the challenges and establishing action plans. Finally, environmental and local government legislation should clearly define the respective roles and responsibilities of these levels of government while underlining the consultative relationship that ought to exist between national ministries and increasingly decentralized regional and local authorities.

Monitoring and Compliance

It is a daunting task to begin scientific environmental monitoring, so efforts should initially focus on the most damaging wastes and industries to prevent from being overwhelmed. Reliable field surveys on industrial generation and disposal will help to pinpoint the most pressing needs, as well as estimate the scale and scope of the problem throughout the city. To attract the specialists needed to conduct analyses, the public sector should invest in training and build a career ladder for environmental technicians. Other investments must be made in laboratory facilities and specialized testing and analysis rooms (for example, dust free rooms for trace level sample preparation). Environmental education of the public through presentations at schools and information sharing with the media and environmental NGOs, will greatly increase a city’s ability to monitor compliance at a relatively low cost. Knowing that there are watchdogs will also deter polluters.

Management of Future Growth and Land-Use Planning

Finally, urban EMS frameworks must proactively manage land, natural resources and infrastructure to plan for future economic and demographic growth. Environmental and economic-based urban ‘smart growth’ strategies and land use plans, designed to improve local governance of urbanization, integrate a series of tools such as capital improvements planning and budgeting, zoning regulations, time-phased service delivery in defined areas, and land cadastral systems tied to taxation policies. These are inherently consultative processes. Selection of appropriate growth management controls, while largely dependent upon local political and geographical contexts, must also balance the environmental priorities of the community-at-large. The adoption of a mix of most appropriate tools is designed to mitigate environmental impacts and vulnerabilities associated with rapid and unplanned urbanization. Policy concerns include: mitigating and/or preventing urban slum growth, redistributing pressure from urban squatters into more effective community participation, decreasing pollution and natural resources contamination, and regulating population, commercial and industrial densities.

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