Meeting Challenges for the Urban Future

Remarks by Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Secretary-General of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20)

Minister Du Ying,
Executive Director Dr. Juan Clos,
Mr. Zhou Han Ming,

It is a great pleasure to address the opening of this event.  

United Nations collaboration with the Shanghai Municipal Government dates back to more than a decade ago when we jointly organized symposia on e-governance.

This collaboration was intensified during the organization of the 2010 World Expo.

At that time, both UN-HABITAT and DESA had productive cooperation with the Shanghai Municipal Government. Indeed, UN-HABITAT signed the host country agreement on behalf of the UN, while DESA supported the Theme Forums and the Summit Forum.

For the sake of full disclosure, let me say that I was born in Shanghai.  But that is not the only reason I care about Shanghai.

Particularly after our collaboration during the Expo, I came to appreciate how much Shanghai has achieved in terms of sustainable urbanization.

Shanghai has many valuable lessons to share and much to offer other cities.

But I am not going to elaborate on this today.

We have a senior policy-maker from Shanghai who will speak more on Shanghai’s successes.

My UN-HABITAT colleague Dr. Clos has a great deal of knowledge, experience and insights to share with us. 

I will therefore focus my remarks on a few issues that have been discussed during the preparatory process of Rio+20.

From the very beginning of the Rio+20 preparations, urbanization has been identified as one of the seven critical priority areas.

While negotiations are still ongoing and there is no consensus text yet, delegations at least agree on the challenges that cities face.

Cities are and will continue to be at the frontline of global crises – the economic recession, energy insecurity, water scarcity, flooding, high food prices, vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters.

At the same time, cities are now experiencing the greatest migration in history from rural to urban areas.

The nature of the challenges, pressures and insecurities that beset cities as a result of rapid urban population growth lend a strong sense of urgency.

The message is clear – if we hope to achieve sustainable urbanization, these problems must be dealt with energetically, systematically and inclusively.

Specifically, I see four aspects of urban planning that need to be addressed.

First, more participatory urban management is needed. As urban challenges become more complex, there is a critical need for a new level of engagement between city leaders and stakeholders, not just professional urban planners, but also business and urban residents.

For example, land use planning, a key challenge, has to address the needs of dense, mixed-use community development, integrated with public transit.

Mayors of rapidly growing cities must also ensure provision of basic services – specifically housing, water supply, wastewater treatment, energy, solid waste management, education and healthcare – to under-served groups.

Second, we need to transform the urban economy from brown to green.

Urban leaders can catalyze change through new economic and market development strategies, focusing, wherever possible, on the transition to a low-carbon future.

One of the themes of the Rio+20 Conference – a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication – is particularly apt for city dwellers and planners and, by extension, to national economies.

A critical factor to bear in mind is that such a green economy must be based on local and national circumstances.

Third, we must use culture as a force for urban renewal.

We need to preserve tangible and intangible cultural heritage, which help define a city’s unique identity and charm.

Initiatives that develop creative industries and cultural tourism can regenerate run-down urban areas and reshape a city’s image.

Preserving a city’s physical and cultural heritage can be a powerful source of attraction for visitors and a source of significant revenues from tourism.

In this area, I think our host City, Rio de Janeiro, sets a great example.

Fourth, we must build intelligent cities.

Smart and connected cities yield multiple benefits in terms of managing green buildings, traffic optimization, improving efficiencies in energy consumption and waste management and building an information society.

Information and communication technology, including e-governance and e-learning, enable access to information and create time-savings for business, commerce, schools, citizen government and residents.

By addressing these interrelated issues, I am optimistic about the prospects for sustainable urbanization.

We can also take hope from the fact that cities are excellent laboratories for solutions to global problems.

They are home to humanity’s greatest possibilities and achievements, engines of economic growth, and centers of innovation and creativity.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The issues I raised here reflect what has been raised during the Rio+20 preparatory discussions on cities.

Despite intense negotiations, I am confident that member States will agree on a decision on sustainable urbanization. 

I welcome all of you in adding to this discussion.

I am sure the speakers will provide diverse perspectives on how to address the challenges of urbanization and what innovative solutions are being piloted by cities around the world. 

And from you – our audience – I welcome your thoughts and feedback. 

I look forward to a productive discussion.

Thank you.