First UrbanShift Asia Forum Focuses on Transforming Cities into Hubs of Opportunity

The stage was set in New Delhi from September 25 to 28, 2023 at Hyatt Regency for a groundbreaking event that promises to shape the future of cities across Asia. The inaugural UrbanShift Forum (Asia), an initiative with the potential to turn urban areas into vibrant hubs of opportunity, brought together visionaries, policymakers, and experts from across the globe.

The UrbanShift Asia Forum is the flagship event of UrbanShift, a transformative initiative supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). UrbanShift’s mission is to empower cities to shape a resilient, inclusive, zero-carbon future where both people and the planet thrive. This initiative is currently being implemented in nine countries, including China, India, Indonesia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Morocco, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Argentina. The project is a collaborative effort led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in partnership with the World Resources Institute (WRI), C40 Cities, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, the United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank.

Setting the Stage

The esteemed Hon’ble Union Minister, Mr. Hardeep Singh Puri, of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), Government of India, inaugurated the event with an address emphasising the critical need for cities in the Global South to localise their climate agendas. “No discussion on urban planning can be removed from fiscal health. Cities depend heavily on central grants to meet basic financial needs. This needs to change,” he said, adding, “The UrbanShift initiative has been conceived with the two most important agendas in mind: SDGs and the Paris Agreement.  There is no greater goal than to restore the environment for everyone’s benefit.”

Distinguished speakers graced the inaugural event, each contributing unique insights. These included luminaries such as Mr. Atul Bagai, Country Head, UNEP India Office; Mr. Madhav Pai, Chief Executive Officer, WRI; Mr. Aloke Barnwal, Senior Climate Change Specialist and Coordinator – Sustainable Cities, GEF; Mr. Hitesh Vaidya, Director, National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) India; Mr. Emani Kumar, Deputy Secretary-General, ICLEI, and Executive Director, ICLEI South Asia; and Ms. Andrea Fernandez, Managing Director of Climate Finance, Knowledge, and Partnerships, C40 Cities.

Mr. Emani Kumar, in his opening remarks emphasised the urgent need to shift from fossil fuels to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy and lifestyle. He called for bold, transformative, and inclusive strategies and action plans to build sustainable cities, with UrbanShift leading the way towards these solutions.

Empowering Regional Cities

With over 150 representatives hailing from national governments and cities in India, Indonesia, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines, Jordan, and Sri Lanka, along with international organisations, financial institutions, businesses, and NGOs, the forum became a melting pot of ideas. The UrbanShift Forum’s primary objective was clear: to empower regional cities through training and capacity-building, enabling them to navigate the intricate world of integrated and sustainable urban development successfully.

The opening plenary session was a highlight, featuring a high-level panel and engaged participants. They delved into key urban issues affecting the Asian region while brainstorming strategies to overcome hurdles. The overarching goal was to transform Asian cities into vibrant ‘cities of opportunity.’ Several regional leaders articulated their vision and policy directions, painting a picture of enhanced ambition and accelerated climate actions in Asian cities. The forum was an inclusive event with translators and sign language interpreters to cater to the diverse participants.

Parallel sessions held during the rest of the Forum provided a platform for attendees to exchange insights, showcase successful practices, and explore scalable strategies. The discussions also revolved around avenues for support from UrbanShift, including knowledge and capacity-building and opportunities for financial and private sector engagement.

Participants eagerly shared experiences from GEF-funded Sustainable Cities Projects. Speakers from cities as diverse as Pune in India and Balikpapan in Indonesia shared inspiring stories of their journey towards climate action. The resounding call for innovative climate financing echoed throughout the day, emphasising the need to catalyse transformative changes in cities worldwide. From nature-based solutions to zero-emission transport systems, the message was clear: a sustainable and equitable future hinges on ambitious urban planning and climate resilience. One of the key highlights of the first day of the event was the launch of the UrbanShift Online City Academy. Comprising eight essential urban planning topics, this free resource empowers urban practitioners to deepen their knowledge through self-paced, interactive study. This initiative underscores the commitment to equip city leaders with the tools they need to drive sustainable change.

Capacity Building and Equipping City Leaders

The second day of the forum witnessed participants delving into two impactful courses within the in-person City Academy: “Accessing Urban Climate Finance” led by ICLEI and “Accommodating Urban Growth” led by C40 Cities. These courses, tailored to the Asian context, fostered deep collaboration among city representatives. Through presentations, exercises, and case studies, participants gained invaluable insights into sustainable urban planning.

The Accessing Urban Climate Finance course equipped city-level actors with the tools to mobilise and access finance for sustainable and climate-resilient urban infrastructure projects. It empowered subnational governments to navigate planning, design, and financing processes for net-zero cities that cater to all residents’ needs.  Accommodating Urban Growth was a comprehensive course that provided a framework, methodologies, evidence, and case studies to empower urban planners and decision-makers to confidently plan and implement strategies for accommodating urban growth sustainably.

A Catalyst for Transformation

As the three days of intensive workshops concluded, they highlighted the importance of knowledge exchange between cities. Sharing experiences across contexts enables city leaders to identify and replicate effective solutions, collectively accelerating transformation. The forum showcased the crucial role of integration, both within the Asia region and across levels of government, in addressing the challenges posed by rapid urban expansion and climate change.

On the fourth concluding day, a study tour was organised for the participants to visit New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC)’s Smart City Integrated Command and Control Centre. Dashboards displaying real-time data tracking the performance of 19 urban services, from waste management to smart street lighting to responding to resident inquiries, were showcased.

A Legacy of Collaboration and Sustainability

The UrbanShift Asia Forum showcased the power of collaboration, the importance of knowledge exchange, and the commitment to capacity building in driving sustainable urban development. The resources launched in the Forum provide comprehensive training on essential urban planning themes and climate finance, further reinforcing the commitment to equipping city leaders with the tools they need to drive sustainable change.

As the world’s cities grapple with the relentless complexities of climate change and rapid urbanisation, events such as the UrbanShift Asia Forum offer a stage for the sharing of groundbreaking solutions, the forging of enduring partnerships, and the collective shaping of a more sustainable and equitable future.  While the curtains may have closed on the event, its impact will reverberate everywhere. Cities across the globe are now more united than ever, working hand in hand to craft a brighter tomorrow, one that is defined by resilience, innovation, and a steadfast dedication to building a more sustainable and prosperous urban future.

Access the high-level plenary session recording here.



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