city-level decoupling

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These cases were selected to showcase innovative and visionary approaches to sustainable infrastructure change across a broad range of contexts, and are intended to demonstrate the abundance of options available that could inspire leaders of other cities to embrace creative solutions. While the approaches may be unique to each case, they can be used to inspire new thinking about infrastructural solutions that leverage existing strengths and resources to address social and environmental needs in an innovative manner. It is important to note that many of these cases have not been fully documented or are based on independently verified information. Nevertheless, they are concrete expressions of widely circulated ideas that have begun to be put in practice, with lessons that loop back into networks that can stimulate the creativity of the next generation of innovators, who could benefit from mastering the tools of material flow analysis.


  • For more information, contact:UNEP DTIESustainable, Consumption and Production Branch15 rue de Milan75441 Paris CEDEX 09FranceTel: +33 1 4437 1450Fax: +33 1 4437 1474E-mail:

    ISBN: 978-92-807-3298-6Job Number: DTI /1587/PA

    Building upon previous work of the International Resource Panel on Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth, this report examines the potential for decoupling at the city level. While the majority of the worlds population now live in cities and cities are where most resource consumption takes place, both the pressures and potentials to find ways to reconcile economic growth, wellbeing and the sustainable use of natural resources will therefore be greatest in cities.

    Analysing the role of cities as spatial nodes where the major resource flows connect as goods, services and wastes, the reports focus is how infrastructure directs material flows and therefore resource use, productivity and efficiency in an urban context. It makes the case for examining cities from a material flow perspective, while also placing the city within the broader system of flows that make it possible for it to function.

    The report also highlights the way that the design, construction and operation of energy, waste, water, sanitation and transport infrastructures create a socio-technical environment that shapes the way of life of citizens and how they procure, use and dispose of the resources they require. Its approach is innovative in that it frames infrastructure networks as socio-technical systems, examining pressures for change within cities that go beyond technical considerations. The importance of intermediaries as the dominant agents for change is emphasized, as well as the fact that social processes and dynamics need to be understood and integrated into any assessment of urban infrastructure interventions and the reconfiguration of resource flows.

    A set of 30 case studies provide examples of innovative approaches to sustainable infrastructure change across a broad range of urban contexts that could inspire leaders of other cities to embrace similar creative solutions. Of course, innovations in and of themselves do not suffice if they are not integrated into larger strategic visions for the city, and as each city is unique, interventions need to be tailored to the set of challenges and opportunities present in each case.

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    CITY-LEVEL DECOUPLINGUrban resource flows and the governance of infrastructure transitions

    annex: case studies from selected cities

    In collaboration with UN Habitat

  • About the UNEP Division of Technology, Industry and Economics

    The UNEP Division of Technology, Industry and Economics (DTIE) helps governments, local authorities and decision-makers in business and industry to develop and implement policies and practices focusing on sustainable development.

    The Division works to promote:

    o sustainable consumption and production,o the efficient use of renewable energy,o adequate management of chemicals,o the integration of environmental costs in development policies.

    The Office of the Director, located in Paris, coordinates activities through:

    o The International Environmental Technology Centre IETC (Osaka), which implements integrated waste, water and disaster management programmes, focusing in particular on Asia.o Sustainable Consumption and Production (Paris), which promotes sustainable consumption and production patterns as a contribution to human development through global markets.o Chemicals (Geneva), which catalyzes global actions to bring about the sound management of chemicals and the improvement of chemical safety worldwide.o Energy (Paris and Nairobi), which fosters energy and transport policies for sustainable development and encourages investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency.o OzonAction (Paris), which supports the phase-out of ozone depleting substances in developing countries and countries with economies in transition to ensure implementation of the Montreal Protocol.o Economics and Trade (Geneva), which helps countries to integrate environmental considerations into economic and trade policies, and works with the finance sector to incorporate sustainable development policies.

    UNEP DTIE activities focus on raising awareness, improving the transfer of knowledge and information, fostering technological cooperation and partnerships, and implementing international conventions and agreements.

    For more information, see

    DisclaimerThe designations employed and the presentation of the material in this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the United Nations Environment Programme concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. Moreover, the views expressed do not necessarily represent the decision or the stated policy of the United Nations Environment Programme, nor does citing of trade names or commercial processes constitute endorsement.


    Lead authors: Mark Swilling, Blake Robinson, Simon Marvin and Mike Hodson.

    Contributing authors: Adriana Allen, Ana Carolina Herrero, Anri Landman, Apiwat Ratanawaraha, Aromar Revi, Bernhard Truffer, Christian Binz, Claire Janisch, Damian Conway, Diana Daste, Edgar Pieterse, Gabriela Weber de Morais, Gye Woon Choi , Harriet Bulkeley, Ibidun Adelekan, Julio Dvila, Jyri Seppl, Kulwant Singh, Lars Coenen, Lasse Peltonen, Lauren Tavener-Smith, Lian Guey LER, Maarten Hajer, Mari Tomita, Matthew Wood-Hill, Natalie Mayer, Oscar Ricardo Schmeiske, Perween Rahman, Sabine Barles, Shuaib Lwasa, Stefanie Swanepoel, Vanesa Castn Broto, Walter Alberto Pengue.

    We would like to acknowledge the contributions of a wide range of people who in various ways have made it possible to publish this report. The first group that need to be acknowledged are the contributing authors who participated in workshops, contributed their writing and suggestions in ways that made it possible for this report to reflect the wide heterogeneity of contexts and urban experiences. As members of the Cities Working Group of the International Resource Panel, they have effectively acted as internal reviewers of this report as it has gone through its numerous iterations and revisions. We would also like to acknowledge the anonymous reviewers and the peer review coordinator, Dr. Lea Kauppi, for their valuable insights and contributions. There is no doubt that the overall quality and coherence of the report improved as we responded to the peer reviews that we received.

    As far as funding for this report is concerned, while the bulk of the funding was provided by UNEP which we gratefully acknowledge, some of the work was also funded by UN Habitat for a related set of outputs. We are grateful for the cooperation on urban issues that exists between these two UN agencies which is also reflected in the two prefaces by their respective Directors. Furthermore, the institutional support of Stellenbosch University and the Sustainability Institute is acknowledged, as is the support of the South African Governments National Research Foundation that funds much of the background research conducted by Professor Mark Swilling and his team of researchers and postgraduate students. The ongoing support of the South African Governments Department of Environmental Affairs is also acknowledged.

    Finally, we would like to acknowledge the valuable support of the Co-Chairs of the International Resource Panel and the various members of the Secretariat of the International Resource Panel who have supported the co-lead authors since the start of this project at a meeting of the International Resource Panel in Stellenbosch in November 2010, namely Janet Salem, Shaoyi Li and Lowri Rees.

    Copyright United Nations Environment Programme, 2013This publication may be reproduced in whole or in part and in any form for educational or nonprofit purposes without special permission from the copyright holder, provided acknowledgement of the source is made.

    UNEP would appreciate receiving a copy of any publication that uses this publication as a source. No use of this publication may be made for resale or for any other commercial purpose whatsoever without prior permission in writing from the United Nations Environment Programme.

    Design/layout: GRID-ArendalPrinted by: Birkeland Trykkeri AS, NorwayCover photos : Shutterstock

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    mentally sound practices globally and in its own activities.

    This publication is printed on 100% recycled paper, using vegetable -based inks and other eco-friendly practices. Our distribution policy aims to reduce

    UNEPs carbon footprint.

    The annex of the report should be referenced as follows:UNEP (2013) City-Level Decoupling: Urban resource flows and the governance of infrastructure transitions. Case Studies from selected cities. A Report of the Working Group on Cities of the International Resource Panel. Swilling M., Robinson B., Marvin S. and Hodson M.

    ISBN: 978-92-807-3298-6

  • CITY-LEVEL DECOUPLING:Urban resource flows and the governance of i


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