The World Urban Forum, a global event organized by UN-Habitat, began this week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. More than 21,000 delegates from around the world are meeting to discuss the role cities can play in sustainable development.
For the first time, more than half of the world lives in cities. This number will only grow, argues Anna Tibaijuka, Director of UN-Habitat: “Just over half the world now lives in cities but by 2050, over 70 percent of the world will be urban dwellers. By then, only 14 percent of people in rich countries will live outside cities, and 33 percent in poor countries.” In addition, these new urban dwellers are increasingly moving into slums. The worldwide slum population is expected to grow from one to two billion by 2030.
UN-Habitat argues that cities have the potential to be models of sustainable development. However, if cities do not scale up and provide a range of services to new urban populations, they may fail to play a positive role in future human development.
UN-Habitat’s “State of the Cities” Report
In UN-Habitat’s new “State of the World Cities” report, a biannual review of world cities launched at the Forum, the organization says the world is moving into vast mega-city regions of more than 100 million people. The Guardian (UK) says these “‘endless cities’ could be one of the most significant developments – and problems – in the way people live and economies grow in the next 50 years.”
The report says these mega-regions do offer some benefits. Report co-author Eduardo Lopez Moreno told The Guardian: “Research shows that the world’s largest 40 mega-regions cover only a tiny fraction of the habitable surface of our planet and are home to fewer than 18 percent of the world’s population [but] account for 66 percent of all economic activity and about 85 percent of technological and scientific innovation.” Cities drive wealth creation.
However, some cities are also contributing to the dramatic growth of sprawl, slums, and expanding income inequalities. The report authors contend: “Cities like Los Angeles grew 45% in numbers between 1975-1990, but tripled their surface area in the same time. This sprawl is now increasingly happening in developing countries as real estate developers promote the image of a ‘world-class lifestyle’ outside the traditional city.”
Sprawl is symptomatic of a “dysfunctional city.” “It is not only wasteful, it adds to transport costs, increases energy consumption, requires more resources, and causes the loss of prime farmland.”
High levels of urban inequality also run counter to sustainability. “The more unequal that cities become, the higher the risk that economic disparities will result in social and political tension. The likelihood of urban unrest in unequal cities is high. The cities that are prospering the most are generally those that are reducing inequalities.”
According to the report, cities with high levels of inequality include New York, Chicago, and Washington, which were rated as less equal than “Brazzaville in Congo-Brazzaville, Managua in Nicaragua and Davao City in the Phillippines.” In the United States, “the marginalisation and segregation of specific groups creates a city within a city. The richest 1 percent of households now earns more than 72 times the average income of the poorest 20 percent of the population. In the ‘other America’, poor black families are clustered in ghettoes lacking access to quality education, secure tenure, lucrative work and political power.”
New Sustainable Cities Initiatives
To lay out a path for sustainable urban development, UN-Habitat has also launched the World Urban Campaign. “The World Urban Campaign is a platform for public, private and civil society actors to elevate policies and share practical tools for sustainable urbanization. The success of the Campaign will be measured by more sustainable urban policies at the national level and increased investment and capital flows in support of those policies.”
The campaign will include the “100 cities” initiative, a potentially innovative bottom-up tool for identifying urban best practices. Citiwire writes: “100 Cities will employ user-friendly web 2.0 tools to invite nominations. Anyone in a city — a mayor or corporation, a public transit official, a neighborhood activist — will be able to nominate a promising new initiative or practice. A community-based bank, for example, could apply by showing ways it’s helping the poor defend their homes against flooding.”
Other organizations have also announced the launch of major initiatives at the Forum. The American Planning Association (APA) announced its new “Sustaining Places Initiative,” a multi-year, multi-faceted program to “define the role of planning in addressing all human settlement issues relating to sustainability.” The APA says: “Sustaining Places will examine both how places can be sustained and how places themselves sustain life and civilizations. Planning’s comprehensive focus is not limited to a building or a site but encompasses all scales and all forms of organization of human settlements, from rural areas and small town to cities and metropolitan regions.”
UNICEF highlighted its Child-friendly Cities program, a new initiative outlining local systems of governance that are committed to fullfilling children’s rights.
A High-Level Delegation from the U.S.
To demonstrate its new focus on cities, the Obama administration has sent a 50-member high-level delegation to the Forum, including Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan and Deputy Secretary Ron Sims. The White House is represented by Adolfo Carrion, Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs. U.S. AID, State and Agriculture are also sending high-level representatives.
HUD Secretary Donovan said the Obama Administration understands that the U.S. has an “enormous stake in ensuring that countries across the globe usher in a new era of sustainable economic growth and development as well – opening new markets for green technology in American products; reversing the effects of global warming; and perhaps most importantly, ensuring that billions of families live not in despair, but in communities of choice, opportunity and hope.”
Image credit: NASA