4 October 2013 – Cities must boost efforts to become more resilient to natural disasters as well as provide their citizens with methods of alternative transportation to thrive, senior United Nations officials said today.

“As the effects of climate change increase, urban resilience becomes ever more necessary,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his remarks at an event at UN Headquarters to mark World Habitat Day, observed annually on the first Monday of October.“All actors need to work together to save lives, protect assets and guarantee services when disasters strike. Planning is essential.”

A new study that looks at how rapid urbanization affected biodiversity and ecosystems, the Urbanization, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: Challenges and Opportunities,  was also launched during the events for the Day.   The study, which was produced by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, in collaboration with UN-Habitat, other United Nations agencies and some 200 scientists worldwide, is the first global assessment of its kind.

It is now expected that urban areas would grow to about the size of South Africa by 2050, according to Thomas Elmqvist, the report”s scientific editor.   Prime agricultural land would significantly be covered by a lot of buildings, straining local infrastructure and posing challenges to local governments.  In that regard, investment must be made in those cities in a way that positively impacted health, food and water securities and global resilience.

Mr. Ban noted that the humanitarian and economic cost of natural disasters is mounting, with natural hazards having killed some 1.1 million people since 2000. Since then, more than 2.7 billion have been affected and the economic cost is estimated at $1.3 trillion.

“The poor, who are hit first and worst, have the least means to recover,” Mr. Ban stressed, adding that urban resilience is a sustainable development priority.

“Getting mobility right can mean the difference between a struggling city and a thriving one,” Mr. Ban said. “Mobility is not a question of building wider or longer roads. It is about providing appropriate and efficient systems that serve the most people in the best, most equitable manner.”

Alternative methods of transportation such as bicycles, buses and trains, can help tackle pollution and congestion, provide transport for those who cannot afford it, and benefit those who do not use cars due to impracticality such as the elderly and persons with disabilities. Increasing well-lit sidewalks for pedestrians will also addresses the issue of safety, which is of particular concern for women, young persons and minorities.

Improved mobility can regenerate urban centres, boost productivity and make a city attractive for all users – from investors to visitors and residents, Mr. Ban said.

President of the General Assembly John Ashe underlined that working towards improved resilience and mobility requires the involvement of multiple stakeholders including Governments, international, regional and local organizations, the private sector and civil society.

“For far too long, the international community has worked in silos: humanitarian action, poverty eradication, environmental protection, and disaster reduction were dealt with separately,” Mr. Ashe said. “To build resilient cities, serviced by sustainable transport, we must recognize the interconnectedness of all these dimensions and pull together knowledge, skills and best practices from different areas of expertise.”

In a press conference at Headquarters, Executive Director of UN-Habitat Joan Clos, once the Mayor of Barcelona, Spain,  emphasized that citizens need better mobility not just to go to work, but also to have access services, education and recreational activities. He added that countries face environmental and economic sustainability challenges to improve mobility.

“We need to change the patterns of mobility so that transport systems in the future are less dependent on for-sale energy,” Mr. Clos said. Cities also need to find ways to ensue that accessibility to transport system is not stopped by economical barriers. This, he added, is particularly pressing in the developing world.  He said the cities of the future must be planned for sustainability. “While cities were created by humans, they must not be left to spontaneity.”

In his statement on the Day, issues earlier, Mr. Clos said urban planning and design should focus on how to bring people and places together, by creating cities that focus on accessibility, rather than simply increasing the length and capacity of urban transport infrastructure.

“By optimizing urban densities and minimizing land zoning we start to make the city work for its citizens proximity of goods and services takes advantage of the urban advantage and encourages investment and opportunity,” he said, adding that compact, well-designed cities can also be cleaner and have less impact on their environment per resident than more spread out areas.

“In an environment characterized by scarcity, this is not only preferable to our standard of living but vital if we are to grow our urban space in a sustainable and desirable way. We need to ensure the cities of the future are well-planned, sustainable and accessible to all,” he said.