EO for SDG11: Space Solutions for Sustainable Cities

 EO for SDG11: Space Solutions for Sustainable Cities

This week saw two online events dedicated to space solutions for urban environments. First the Eurisy ‘Space for Cities’ event, focusing on Earth observation to build sustainable and climate resilient cities and communities. This was followed by the urban workshop of the Fire Forum project, which zoomed in on space data user uptake issues in cities and municipalities. Both events directly contributed to UN Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities.

Space for Sustainable Development Goals

In her opening speech for the Space for Cities event, UNOOSA Director Simonetta di Pippo highlighted the key role that space, and most significantly Earth observation, plays in supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2018 report ‘EGNSS and Copernicus: Supporting the Sustainable Development Goals (pdf file)‘ shows that all the SDGs are positively impacted by the benefits stemming from the use of European Global Navigation Satellite Systems (EGNSS) and Copernicus applications and, out of the 169 targets associated, 65 (almost 40 per cent) directly benefit from using the EGNSS and Copernicus services, either helping monitor the status of achievement of a given SDG or actively contributing to its fulfilment.

Space as an agent of change: UNOOSA
Role of space for SDGs (image: UNOOSA)

SDG11: Space for sustainable cities and communities

Sustainable Development Goal 11 is focused on cities, as more than half of the world’s population lives in them. Cities are hubs for ideas, commerce, culture, science, productivity, social development and much more; they have enabled people to advance socially and economically. However, many challenges exist to maintaining cities in a way that continues to create jobs and prosperity without straining land and resources.

Earth Observation and GNSS data support urban mapping and infrastructure monitoring to help plan and manage city services and structures. EO and GNSS-based services create smarter, sustainable cities by optimizing traffic management, reducing energy consumption, and improving urban mobility, and monitoring air pollution.

The New Urban Agenda

Habitat III was one of the first United Nations global summits after the adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda. It gave the opportunity to open discussions on important urban challenges and questions, such as how to plan and manage cities, towns and villages for sustainable development. The discussion of these questions shapes the implementation of new global development and climate change goals. In particular, the conference elaborates on Goal #11 of the Sustainable Development Goals: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.”. The primary goal and outcome of the conference was the agreement by UN member states on the New Urban Agenda (NUA), which will serve as a guideline for urban development for the next twenty years.

The New Urban Agenda is a shared vision for healthy, sustainable cities
Find the New Urban Agenda in many languages here (image: UN-HABITAT)

The New Urban Agenda represents a shared vision for a better and more sustainable future. If well-planned and well-managed, urbanisation can be a powerful tool for sustainable development for both developing and developed countries.

Download the New Urban Agenda (English, pdf) here

One of the main driving organisations behind the New Urban Agenda is the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), founded after the Habitat-I conference in 1978. UN-HABITAT is now one of the key organisations behind SDG11.

EO4SDG Toolkit for Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements

There are several initiatives that bring space solutions to the Sustainable Development Goals. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs lists some of these on its Space4SDGs website (here).

One of the organisations that specifically looks at space solutions for SDGs is EO4SDG. EO4SDG organizes and realizes the potential of Earth observations and geospatial information to advance the United Nations 2030 Agenda and enable societal benefits through achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Specifically for SDG11 EO4SDG developed the Earth Observations Toolkit for Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements, , together with UN-HABITAT and the Group on Earth Observations (GEO). This toolkit combines the targets of SDG11 with those of the New Urban Agenda. It contains Copernicus satellite data, as well as other Earth observation data sources, like Landsat, Modis and Viirs, and it even contains several commercial satellite sources.

The Global Human Settlement Layer

Cities exist for its inhabitants, but census data cannot be observed from space. City managers use sociographic information about neighbourhoods and areas in their cities, but this is often highly generalised. By combining this census data with detailed information about the built environment, details about how people live in different areas of the city.

Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL) example of Bangkok
Combining built area information with census data provides a detailed view of where the people in and around a city really live, in this example in Bangkok, Thailand (image: GHSL)

The European Commission GHSL project produces global spatial information, evidence-based analytics and knowledge describing the human presence on the planet.

The Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL) project produces global spatial information about the human presence on the planet over time. This in the form of built-up maps, population density maps and settlement maps. This information is generated with evidence-based analytics and knowledge using new spatial data mining technologies.

The GHSL processing framework uses heterogeneous data including global archives of fine-scale satellite imagery, census data, and volunteered geographic information. The data is processed fully automatically and generates analytics and knowledge reporting objectively and systematically about the presence of population and built-up infrastructures.

The GHSL website has many showcases of how the human settlement layer works in practice, at individual city level, all the way up to the global scale.

FIRE: Promoting Adoption of EO Solutions

The Eurisy event showed several innovative space data applications that help city managers develop healthy, liveable and sustainable cities. Often these great applications are available for free, or at very limited cost to the users. Nevertheless, the uptake of these space data solutions is often relatively low. This is the starting point of FIRE, an Horizon 2020 project led by the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC).

FIRE, the industry-led Forum for Innovation and Research in European Earth Observation, has started its activities to shape the Research and Innovation Strategy for Earth Observation (EO) solutions in Europe. It will establish a user community across different sectors, starting with agriculture, energy, raw materials, infrastructure, marine, and urban development. A dedicated ‘EO Evangelist’ programme will promote the adoption of EO solutions in these sectors. Open dialogue with the demand side will guide the development, delivery and uptake of EO services in Europe.

Barriers to using Earth Observation for Urban Development

One of the focus areas of the FIRE project is urban development. During a workshop on 21 February 2022 a group of stakeholders joined a workshop to identify the key barriers for urban planners in using Earth Observation data. This was a follow-up workshop after the first FIRE Forum Webinars in 2021.

Infographic on the outcome of the Urban FIRE Forum of 2021, summarising some of the user uptake challenges in space data (click to enlarge)

Although some of the barriers that were identified represent known issues in the Earth observation field, others are very much awareness and bias related. One of the issue identified is the fragmentation of both supply (solution providers) and demand (city managers) for Earth observation products. As we have seen in our recent map of the space industry in the Netherlands, the EO application sector still largely consists of many small and very specialised organisations that don’t always know about each other’s products. Similarly there are a few leading cities that are using EO solutions, but this knowledge is not always easily shared with other cities that are looking for solutions for similar problems.

Barriers for space data uptake in the urban sector (image: FIRE)

Showcases needed

One way of promoting user uptake for space data solutions is the development and dissemination of success stories. This is one of the jobs of the FIRE ‘EO Evangelists’, who bring the benefits of space solutions to sector events, like international city planning conferences.

Space solutions for cities and regions in Europe
A selection of 99 user stories by local and regional authorities (image: NEREUS)

A few years ago, the Network of European Regions using Space Technologies (NEREUS) published a selection of 99 Copernicus user stories by local and regional authorities, in its book ‘The ever growing use of Copernicus across Europe’s regions’ (free pdf download here). This book contains examples of successful use of Copernicus data for local problems, including 14 examples of applications in urban areas.

Space for Smart Cities Project

Groundstation is part of the Space for Smart Cities Project. Check out how to get involved in this project here:

Space for Smart Cities Project Website

Remco Timmermans

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