Cities for a sustainable future


By 2050, about 70 per cent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas and over 60 per cent of the land projected to become urban by 2030 is yet to be built. If done right, urbanization can help deliver a sustainable future. Taking aim at the topic of sustainable urbanization, ECOSOC is gathering high-level representatives from across the globe for a three-day event on 27-29 May.

Over the centuries, the world has become more and more urbanized. At the beginning of the 19th century, only 2 per cent of the world’s population lived in cities, whereas during the first decade of the 21st century, this number reached the 50 per cent mark. Urban centres have thus become the most dominant habitat of humankind and the trend continues.

“95 per cent of urban expansion will take place in the developing world,” said UN DESA’s Under-Secretary-General Mr. Wu Hongbo as he addressed a High-level Symposium on Sustainable Cities and Sustainable Urbanization in China last year. “In China, 350 million people are expected to move into cities in the coming two decades. Clearly, such massive changes will pose social, economic and environmental challenges, while also creating tremendous opportunities,” Mr. Wu said.

Posing challenges as well as opportunities
With the world urban population estimated to increase from 3.5 billion today to 6.2 billion in 2050, urbanization poses both a challenge and an opportunity to sustainable development. Urban areas are faced with problems of unsustainable geographical expansion patterns; ineffective urban planning, governance and financing systems; inefficient resource use; poverty, inequalities and slums; as well as inadequate delivery of basic services.

Youth, women and people with disabilities have also often been left behind in conventional models of urban development. Extreme deprivation remains a major concern with one billion people living in slums. Furthermore, cities continue to be the major contributor to the total greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite these challenges, urban areas are also a source of growth, development and jobs. They offer opportunities for economies of scale and scope in development efforts, in particular in addressing poverty, health and education issues. Urban centres account for 70 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), i.e. 55 per cent in low-income countries, 73 per cent in middle-income countries, and 85 per cent in high-income economies.

The process of urbanization can thus create an enabling environment for transforming production capacities, income levels and living standards, especially in developing countries. However, this requires a shift in mind-set of decision makers, away from viewing urbanization as a problem, towards viewing urbanization as an opportunity to promote sustainable development.

Urbanization – transformational power to achieve and advance sustainable development
The Outcome Document of the Rio+20 Conference also highlighted the potential of cities, recognizing that if cities were well planned and developed, including through integrated planning and management approaches, they could promote economically, socially and environmentally sustainable societies.

Integrated approaches to sustainable urbanization target multiple MDGs and allow for the strengthening of synergies between efforts to achieve different goals, such as health, education, water and sanitation, maternal and child health, empowerment of women and environmental sustainability.

Addressing sustainable urbanization would entail the consideration of its economic, social and environmental implications and connections and it would require collective action by a wide range of stakeholders, including Governments, the UN system, private enterprises, civil society and communities.

ECOSOC contributes to new urban agenda
Taking aim at the issue of sustainable urbanization during the Integration Segment on 27-29 May, this will offer the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) an opportunity to contribute to the third United Nations conference on housing and sustainable urban development (Habitat III) scheduled to take place in 2016, and more importantly, to the expected outcome document outlining the new urban agenda.

By bringing together the ECOSOC system, policy makers and key stakeholders, including networks of UN-Habitat, Major Groups representatives and UN system organizations, the event will help to establish a common understanding of the role of urbanization in sustainable development and to define the fundamental attributes of the ‘sustainable city’, which Member States and the UN could collectively promote.

Organized by UN DESA in collaboration with UN-Habitat and the Office of the Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA), the event will feature various interactive panel discussions, dialogues, and a town-hall style meeting. Side events, that will be organized by Member States, the UN system and other stakeholders, will offer opportunities for ministers, mayors and other representatives to engage with each other on the future of cities. This segment will also complement and provide input to the work of the High-Level Segment of the Economic and Social Council and the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.

Urban prosperity and urban inequalities
In addition to cities as drivers of sustainable development, a number of other issues will be addressed during the event by high-level participants from across the globe, including sustainable urbanization in Africa and effective governance, policy-making and planning for sustainable urbanization.

The event will also examine urban prosperity and inequalities. The theme of urban equity was also at the core for the recently held World Urban Forum convened by UN Habitat. Their estimates indicate that two-thirds of the world’s urban population live in cities where income inequality has increased since the 1980s. Cities play a critical role in addressing the inequality problem, as their design, governance, and infrastructure have direct impact on the lives and opportunities of their inhabitants.

The event will focus on possible mechanisms for inclusive urbanization and for promoting equality and also on how sustainable urbanization policies can address the issue of inequalities in access to basic public services.

Imagining the cities of the future
“Many experts predict that the battle of the future sustainable development will be won and lost in cities,” said Mr. Wu at the high level symposium in China. “It will be critical to achieving the post-2015 development agenda and the sustainable development goals – whether we will be able to usher in a new era of cities and a new track of sustainable urbanization.”

The cities of the future will also be a topic for discussion at the ECOSOC Integration Segment, featuring questions on what future cities and some of the innovations and partnerships for sustainable urbanization could look like.

“For me, a sustainable city will be a place of economic dynamism. An engine of inclusive, balanced, smart, green and low-carbon economic growth. A place for social progress with social cohesion, socially-balanced housing, as well as public services for all, including health care and education,” Mr. Wu said. “A sustainable city will be a place of green space and environmental regeneration. In short, a sustainable city is a city we all want, for us and for our children,” he added.

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