Marking World Habitat Day, UN officials call for recharged urban planning

5 October 2009 – Mounting urban challenges – including climate change and unplanned development – highlight the need for revitalized and planning to meet the needs of city dwellers, top United Nations officials said today, marking World Habitat Day.

“Evidence from around the world suggests that governments at all levels are largely failing to address these challenges,” with hundreds of millions of city residents becoming ever more vulnerable to rising sea leaves and other climate-related hazards, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on his message for the Day.

In both developing and developed countries, upmarket suburban areas and gated communities have increased in number while there has also been a simultaneous increase in slums, which he characterized as a “troubling trend.”

This, the Secretary-General emphasized, has resulted in a growing divide between technologically advanced, well-serviced business sectors and areas experiencing declining industrial output.

“Better, more equitable urban planning is essential,” he said. “New ideas from smart cities around the world are pointing the way toward sustainable urbanization.”

Urban planning is central to achieving this goal, “but planning will work only where there is good urban governance and where the urban poor are brought into the decisions that affect their lives,” Mr. Ban stressed.

For her part, Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), said that urban planning systems in many parts of the world have not adapted to the changing reality.

“Indeed, they are often contributors to urban problems rather than tools for human and environmental improvement,” she said in a statement for the Day, whose theme this year is “Planning our Urban Future.”

The blame for urban problems, however, cannot be placed solely on planners, likening that to “turning back the clock and going back in history to a time when no one could have foreseen the problems we now face,” Ms. Tibaijuka said.

The private sector and individual citizens who often do not prioritize the public good in their actions, powerful economic interest, inadequate training and other factors have created conditions in which urban planning has not been successful.

“In trying to correct these deficiencies, planning has opened itself to public participation and preference and to taking a more realistic view of the limits possible, while factoring in the resources likely to be available for implementation,” the UN-HABITAT head noted.

A UN independent expert today said planning “with and for the poor” is crucial in the fight against climate change.

“Disasters caused by extreme weather are not simply a result of natural events, but reflect also a failure of urban planning and development policies,” said Raquel Rolnik, the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, noting that some 1 billion people worldwide live in overcrowded conditions or in slums and other informal urban settlements, many of which are in areas prone to flooding or landslides.

Cities without the necessary infrastructure, she pointed out, are more susceptible to climate-related disasters.

“Land and housing for the poor should be placed in the center of urban planning in order to ensure the sustainability of cities,” Ms. Rolnik underscored. “Concerned communities need to be consulted and be allowed to participate in the decision-making process.”

World Habitat Day will be celebrated around the globe with events such as a football match in Cameroon and a photo exhibition in Chile.

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