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A Bigger Toolbox: Leveraging a Fuller Set of City Powers for Sustainable Development

On June 21, 2024, a compelling session titled “A Bigger Toolbox: Leveraging a Fuller Set of City Powers for Sustainable Development” was held at the ICLEI 2024 World Congress. This session provided a platform for sharing diverse global perspectives on overcoming legal and regulatory challenges to achieve sustainable development. Moderated by David Driskell, Principal at Community Planning Collaborative and Board Member of ICLEI USA Office, the panel featured insights from a distinguished group of speakers, including Amy Cotter, Diana Walker, Eunice Prudente, María de la Luz (“Luli”) Lobos Martínez, and Ravinder Bhalla. Their discussions revolved around innovative strategies and practical approaches to sustainable urban development.

Navigating the Synergy Between National and Local Policies

Diana Walker, Senior Advisor at the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Office, underscored the critical role of local governments in implementing sustainability policies. Walker emphasized the importance of the Cities Forward program, a State Department-funded initiative that pairs U.S. and Latin American cities to develop sustainability plans. Highlighting the program’s motto, “Think globally, act locally,” Walker shared that local governments are pivotal in bringing policy closer to the people.

Hoboken and Renca, both participants in the Cities Forward program, demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach. These cities exemplified how local actions, supported by national frameworks, can lead to significant progress in sustainability. Walker’s insights highlighted the need for a harmonious synergy between national and local efforts to drive meaningful change.

Diana Walker highlighted the importance of Cities Forward, a State Department-funded program that pairs US and Latin American cities to [develop sustainability plans.

Hoboken Takes the Fossil Fuels Industry to Courte

Ravinder Bhalla, Mayor of Hoboken, emphasized the crucial role of local governments in driving sustainable development through legal accountability. Bhalla discussed Hoboken’s strategy of holding big oil companies accountable for climate-related damages. This innovative approach, termed “advancing sustainability through accountability,” seeks compensation from fossil fuel companies to fund resilience projects in the city.

Hoboken’s partnership with Montego Bay under the Cities Forward initiative exemplifies how cities can collaborate to address common challenges. The two cities are working together on a proposal to implement stormwater management techniques, inspired by Hoboken’s success with resiliency parks. Bhalla’s insights highlighted the potential of legal actions to secure funding for sustainability initiatives and drive systemic change.

Ravinder Bhalla speaks about leveraging legal powers for change.

Strategic Climate Policies and Land Use Planning

Amy Cotter, Director of Climate Strategies at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, emphasized the transformative power of strategic land use planning. Cotter illustrated how local governments can leverage land use policies to create environmentally sustainable and socially just communities. She cited examples from around the world, showcasing how land value capture and other planning tools can generate revenue and drive resilient development.

One notable example came from Curitiba, where property owners in climate-vulnerable areas can transfer their development rights to flood-resilient zones. This not only protects vulnerable lands but also encourages densification in safer areas, creating green spaces that retain stormwater and support wildlife. Cotter’s presentation underscored the importance of integrating land use planning with capital and infrastructure planning to foster sustainable urban environments.

Amy Cotter emphasized the key role local governments play in using, owning, and managing land in their communities.

Overcoming Legal Barriers in São Paulo

Eunice Prudente, Secretary of Economic Development and Labor for the City of São Paulo, shared a remarkable case study of how São Paulo is overcoming legal barriers to promote sustainability. The city has designated 32 green areas, totaling 16,000 hectares, as public spaces, thereby preserving around 26% of its total land area. Prudente highlighted a specific law that supports cooperatives focused on recycling, promoting proper waste separation and reuse. This initiative not only contributes to environmental sustainability but also generates income for over 200,000 people involved in the program.

Prudente’s insights demonstrated the potential of legal frameworks to facilitate sustainable development while providing socioeconomic benefits to local communities. Her presentation emphasized the need for innovative legal solutions to address environmental challenges effectively.

Eunice Prudente spoke about overcoming legal barriers to advance climate action in São Paulo, Brazil.

Community-Centered Urban Development in Renca

María de la Luz Lobos Martínez, Urban Advisor for the City of Renca, Chile, presented compelling examples of community-centered urban development. Renca’s initiatives focus on nature-based solutions, green space development, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Lobos Martínez highlighted the city’s efforts to introduce a new zoning plan to regulate green areas and support multi-modal transit. Renca’s approach prioritizes community engagement, frequently consulting residents to ensure their needs and preferences are met.

One of Renca’s notable strategies involves improving drainage systems and reducing urban flooding by reconnecting mountains to rivers. This nature-based solution enhances climate resilience and transforms underused areas into valuable community spaces. Lobos Martínez’s presentation highlighted the significance of involving communities in urban planning to achieve equitable and sustainable outcomes.

María Martínez delved into community-centered urban development in the City of Renca, Chile.


The ICLEI 2024 World Congress session provided a wealth of knowledge and innovative strategies for advancing sustainable urban development. The discussions highlighted the importance of local governments in implementing effective policies, the transformative power of strategic land use planning, and the potential of legal frameworks to overcome barriers. Whether you are a government official, policymaker, urban planner, or sustainability enthusiast, these insights offer valuable guidance for tackling pressing challenges and contributing to a sustainable future. Engaging with these learnings can empower cities worldwide to leverage their full set of powers for sustainable development.

About the Author 

Anne Marie Cleary Rauker 

Anne Marie, an atmospheric chemist turned science communicator, is dedicated to fostering strategic communications strategies for governments, organizations, and communities. They are particularly focused on environmental science, climate resilience, and promoting comprehensive community engagement. She hopes their writing bridges communication divides, advocating for multilevel and inclusive approaches to local climate action.