Urban development and post war recovery for Ukrainian cities

Summary of the European Urban Resilience Forum 2022 in Athens, Greece

September 15, 2022


Text by Rostyslav Gavrylov, Communications Officer Energy and Environment Portfolio

Day 1

European Urban Resilience Forum (EURESFO) is the flagship international event where experts, politicians and business discuss, find partners and solutions to make cities around the world more resilient to climate change and its effects, ensure that cities’ infrastructure provides adequate comfort and equal opportunities for its inhabitants and support global efforts on the way to climate neutrality. This year, UNDP in Ukraine facilitated participation of representatives of the Ukrainian cities of Rivne, Vinnytsia and Irpin at EURESFO in an effort to ensure that reconstruction and recovery, which is already starting in Ukraine, learns the best of what international experience has to offer. 

The invasion of Ukraine in February of this year caused the fastest forced population movement since the Second World War. Three months after the war began, more than a quarter of the population - over 12 million people - had fled their homes. At that time, nearly 5.6 million were refugees, and over 7.7 million Ukrainians are internally displaced within Ukraine.

More than 4 million people, most of them refugees, had returned to Ukraine as of August 2022 according to the UN Refugee Agency. Despite the ongoing war in the country, people want to go home. Many of them return to homes that were ruined, many come back to the cities and towns that bear the scars of the war. What unites all the people living in Ukraine and those who are still planning to come back, is the obvious need to rebuild Ukrainian homes and cities. 

This need for reconstruction goes beyond the priorities of safety and functioning basic infrastructure, but also encircles what is envisaged by a much broad term – build forward better.

With over 28 million people living in Ukrainian cities as of early 2022, Ukraine was no different from the rest of the Europe, where 75 percent of the population live in urban environment. The issues faced by people in the cities of Ukraine and the rest of the Europe, including increasing temperatures, pollution, and many others. Challenges posed by the extreme weather events, poor transport infrastructure and others, even though they seem detached are all interconnected and have a drastic impact on the development of the city and most importantly on the people.

The location of this year’s EURESFO Athens is unique in many ways, historically, geographically, but it’s also a best example of a city that has gone through many crises. Athens Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis said in his opening address that since 2003 his city has gone through economic crises, refugee crises, seen fires, heatwaves and is now working to establish an agile and very ambitious resilience plan that will help ensure that Greek capital becomes cooler, greener and cleaner. He added that it is important to understand how the issues of heatwaves have a disproportionate impact on diverse groups of people living in Athens. This is exemplified by an elderly person who has to go to the market under the blazing sun and temperatures of 45 degrees and higher; she may not have air conditioning in the apartment and doesn’t have the means to install one.

The crises and challenges posed by human-induced extreme weather events are becoming a new normal for every person in the world and it will be the task for the people and politicians to find the right sources of capacities, financing, and solutions to overcome these challenges. Vasileios Axiotis from the City of Athens said in his presentation that politicians will have to become visionaries, bringing the best expertise together to develop solutions that will give people ways to ensure their lives in the cities are safe and comfortable.

Achieving ambitious targets

During the opening plenary, speakers from Paris, Valencia and the city of Kallithea provided a brief look into the recent EU policy developments, particularly the Mission for Climate Adaptation and Societal Transformation. They shared insights from European cities that have been pioneers in adaptation and resilience planning, specifically focusing on making Europe climate resilient by 2030.

The approach taken by the city of Athens, discussed during the second plenary “Focus on Athens: from dealing with heat and wildfires to regenerating the city centre” was as unique as the city itself. The city has pledged to achieve ambitious targets to make sure 30 percent of the city is covered by green surfaces by 2030.  They plan to do this by enhancing water surfaces and implementing use of cooler building materials that will help cope with rising temperatures. Adaptation to climate change is impossible without replanning and reconstruction of the city, and a large number of partners have extended their support to city authorities to achieve this.

The European Investment Bank has established a facility agreement to support mainly nature-based solutions-focused projects in Athens. At the same time, according to Stefanie Lindenberg and Leonor Berriochoa of the EIB, the process and all the efforts were well worth it, as they have resulted in green and blue infrastructure development in the city. “It was important to have the strategy in place as we saw that through its development, we could also teach public sector on the issues of climate change adaptation and resilience, - she said. “It is important to make sure that people implementing projects know about strategies, understand them and see a big picture. Don’t talk only about heatwaves and strategies, bring examples, show examples, that’s how you engage people in change.”

Sharing experiences

Aside from UNDP’s preparation for, and active participation in the special session  of EURESFO “Ukraine Cities on the path of resilient and sustainable post war recovery,” we were also actively engaged in marketplace activities, where people come to connect, listen to the experiences, exchange opinions and agree on next steps to further deepen existing partnerships and establish new ones.

Dozens of visitors of Ukraine’s table at marketplace asked about the current situation in different cities of Ukraine, talked about reconstruction efforts and the immense resources needed to help Ukraine on its way to making its cities resilient and sustainable. Many were shocked and yet inspired with the stories from Irpin; leaving their wishes and contact information to express their support of the people of Ukraine and share their prayers for the future of Ukraine.

It was a valuable experience for UNDP colleagues to participate in the discussions and learn of the unique experiences shared by other participants. One such good practice shared was how Zagreb implemented its City Gardens initiative.  

The initiative is very similar to the recent experiment where UNDP worked with Plato NGO on gardening and food production in cities. The activity is beneficial not only in terms of expanding green zones, but also helping to integrate people, strengthening social cohesion and educating urban farmers on sustainable organic agriculture practices and many others. From there we continued to dive deeply into how innovative nature-based solutions became the tools to revitalize post-industrial districts and what works in terms of climate adaptation strategies.

 It will be impossible to cover all the volumes of information and valuable connections we have established during our first day here, but we’ll definitely use this opportunity to say that this visit has been extremely valuable to plan for the future reconstruction of Ukraine and in discovering new partners to finance these future projects.

With this we will close our reflections from our first day here at EURESFO and continue getting ready for tomorrow’s special session on the paths forward for Ukraine cities, ensuring our cities are resilient and offer enabling environment for their residents.  

Day 2

The European Urban Resilience Forum (EURESFO), held this year in Athens, Greece, is a unique event, serving as a practical platform for the discussion and sharing of new ideas, cases and challenges in the area of sustainability and resilience in urban environments.

As Ukrainian cities – in partnership with UNDP and other international partners – work to implement plans for recovery and post-war reconstruction, ensuring that basic critical infrastructure is operational, the issues of resilience, energy efficiency and long-term green, just and sustainable development are vital issues for discussion.

With support from UNDP in Ukraine, representatives from three cities of Ukraine – Irpin, Rivne and Vinnytsia – came to EURESFO this year seeking support and ideas for new approaches to ensuring that their cities’ inhabitants can benefit from the best of world practices in development sustainability and resilience.

At the very beginning of the visit, all the representatives had clear expectations for their engagement with EURESFO – they were seeking new ideas, and information about new successful cases and approaches to ensuring climate change resilience, energy efficiency, and sustainable housing. They also aimed to establish new partnerships and explore opportunities to expand global sustainability programmes so that they cover Ukraine’s large-scale reconstruction and recovery initiatives.

The programme developed for the delegation from the Ukrainian cities covered most of these needs on day one of their EURESFO participation. Day two was devoted mainly to direct engagement with experts, international programmes, and representatives of financial institutions.

A workshop organized in format of a world café started with brief introductions by Anatolii Kutsevol, Deputy State Secretary of the Government of Ukraine, who presented an overview of the current challenges faced by Ukraine. The overview focused on the massive destruction to Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure by the Russian military, which has caused a large-scale refugee crisis, forcing millions to flee their homes in search of safety for themselves and their families.

The introduction by Mr. Kutsevol also emphasized the major tasks for the government and the people of Ukraine in the restoration of damaged cities, ensuring safety, resilience and sustainability for their inhabitants, as well as some of the key challenges on the way to recovery. Such challenges include unprecedented explosive ordnance contamination of vast territories, which has created an urgent need for comprehensive demining and debris removal.

Mr. Kutsevol also emphasized that hundreds of experts and Government representatives have jointly developed a large-scale, 10-year Recovery Plan for Ukraine that includes over 850 projects and activities, with a total budget exceeding $750 billion. The plan is in line with the principles of Agenda 2030.

During the introduction, issues such as energy security, environmental resilience and sustainability were also named as being among top priorities for the recovery of Ukraine’s cities, as the country is looking to make sure its people will live in an enabling environment that is green, just and inclusive. Mr. Kutsevol invited all the participants of the workshop to join efforts to support Ukraine with resources, knowledge and experience, which will help ensure there is a “build forward better” approach to nationwide recovery.

“We have a great understanding of the global sustainable development agenda,” said Mr. Kutsevol. “The idea is to seize the opportunity to build back better than before, and with greater spiritual and cultural considerations. Greater resilience for affected Ukrainian cities means not only the physical recovery of infrastructure but also ensuring the return of Ukrainian refugees and IDPs.”

During his welcoming remarks, Oleksandr Sushchenko, Team Leader, Energy and Environment at UNDP Ukraine, also noted that UNDP is assisting Ukraine’s recovery efforts with its years of expertise and vast capacities in crises relief. It is achieving this through bringing together its international partnerships in resource mobilization, while also creating opportunities for Ukraine’s people and government to find new partners and supporters, and to themselves gain the necessary expertise to ensure further development.

The presentations by the representatives of Irpin, Rivne and Vinnytsia were based on the stories of their cities before and after the beginning of the full-scale war.

The three cities have already achieved a lot in terms of energy efficiency – for example, Rivne is the third most energy saving city in Ukraine. Great success has also been achieved in environmental sustainability, business and economic development, as well as the implementation of resilience plans.

But most importantly, these cities – like many others throughout the country – didn’t shut down when the war started. In fact, both citizens and the city authorities have demonstrated unique skills in resilience and agility by continuing to function, despite destruction and ongoing war in the country. They have opened new green zones for their residents even while launched emergency recovery and reconstruction efforts to ensure that critical infrastructure is operational and that citizens receive the essential basic services.

The workshop format enabled direct interaction between participants on some crucial issues, and showcased how people with different backgrounds can enrich strategizing and ideation by providing meaningful insights on the ways Ukrainian cities can engage with the international community and financial institutions on the path to the recovery.

Some of the most valuable insights shared during the work in groups concerned implementation of ESG methodologies to find common ground, enabling private and green financing for recovery and development of the Ukrainian cities. These approaches will be further developed and formalized so as to form practical instruments that can be piloted and replicated throughout Ukraine.

The audience of the workshop was genuinely surprised by the progress showcased by the Ukrainian city authorities under the tough conditions of ongoing war – especially when it came to the steady progress made in the implementation of sustainability development plans and climate resilience initiatives, which are going ahead along with emergency recovery efforts. Many of the participants also suggested that such experience could be further promoted on various platforms to benefit the sustainable development of other European cities.

The idea of establishing a network of EU and Ukrainian cities to build on the knowledge and experience gained in building sustainability was well received and praised by the participants. It was recognized that this may serve as a good basis for sharing and replicating practical tools, and for providing expertise, capacities and financing to ensure the “build forward better” approach is used.

Overall, the Ukrainian participants’ expectations from attending this year’s EURESFO were fully met. The event will help generate new ideas and partnerships to support the recovery of Ukrainian cities, ensuring that they offer safe, comfortable, green and inclusive environments to millions of Ukrainian citizens and guests of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian delegation wound up its visit with expressions of gratitude to EURESFO and the city of Athens for their warm welcome and firm support for Ukraine at this critical time.  The delegation will use the opportunities provided by the event to further tighten cooperation, and to develop their work with the numerous new European partners they met over the two days.