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21 September 2020

Opportunities for Open Earth Observations for Sustainable Urban Development

Many of the world’s population live in cities, which drive economies and provide premier testing grounds for novel data gathering methods, policies, and approaches. Urban areas are the frontiers for sustainable development. They are central in terms of closing the gap towards international development and environmental policy goals (such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the New Urban Agenda (NUA), the Sendai Framework and the Paris Agreement), beyond existing local and national ambitions. While action is needed at all levels, the need for timely, reliable, disaggregated data is crucial for cities to address the gaps which exist, and to enable evidenced-based decision making.

Earth observation (EO) data offers an additional and affordable means to fill this gap, which complements traditional monitoring methods in cities. 

Open Earth Observations for Sustainable Urban Development,” a recently published open access review in Remote Sensing journal, highlights opportunities that EO offers and tools that city leaders can tap into. The paper reviews the current status, including barriers and the path forward, in using open Earth Observations for Sustainable Urban Development and lays forth key reasons for the lack of consideration and difficulty in using spatially disaggregated data:

  • The cost of generating this data through traditional methods remains high;
  • The technical capacity in geospatial sciences in many countries is low; and
  • The inertia against disturbing routine workflows and adopting new practices (unless imposed through legal requirements at the country level).

High resolution satellite imagery can be used for city planning and management in terms of land use mapping, investigating urban sprawl, and urban heat island mapping (in combination with other data), among many other applications. EO is also currently in use, and holds immense potential, for monitoring and reporting on international agreements.

The EO community, including the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) via its 111 members and 120+ participating organizations and many urban relevant initiatives and programs, is also pushing forth efforts to lower barriers of access, capacity building and use of EO data for urban practitioners and policymakers. A highlight from this community is the forthcoming Earth Observations for Sustainable Cities & Communities Toolkit, which will guide countries and cities in the use of EO for urban SDGs and the New Urban Agenda (NUA) including various levels of SDG planning, monitoring, reporting and implementation. This will involve innovative EO practices as well as city and country use cases of EO applications to aid in monitoring and reporting on the urban SDGs and the NUA.

The paper shines a light on the challenges which exist and the need for better communication between city stakeholders and the EO community. Finally, the paper concludes that the EO community must continue advocacy efforts, considering the nuances of and variation in city governance, to build the necessary political will to disrupt the status quo and inertia against integration of EO techniques into municipal practices.

So what can EO really offer for urban development and resilience?

  1. The ability to do things that you could not do before or do existing tasks better;
  2. At significantly decreased cost; and
  3. Real-life examples of already applied good practice and results that can support the effective and meaningful comparison of different cities (& regions/countries)

Authors: Evangelos Gerasopoulos and Jennifer Bailey (NOA Institute for Environmental Research and Sustainable Development, National Observatory of Athens); Steven Ramage (Global Earth Observation, GEO), edited by Graham Colclough.  

Disclaimer: The content of this blog is the opinion only of the writer and in no way reflects the views of the European Union or the EIP-SCC. The content is curated to allow for insights and debate in order to encourage the uptake of Smart City Solutions across Europe.