27 October 2008


27 October 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



Half of humanity is now living in cities, but this dramatic transition is far from over, according to the new UN-Habitat report “State of the World’s Cities 2008/9:  Harmonious Cities”, which finds that urbanization levels globally will rise dramatically in the next 40 years to reach 70 per cent by 2050.

Anna Tibaijuka, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), and Eduardo Lopez Moreno, Director of UN-Habitat’s City Monitoring Branch and principal author of the report, launched the report at a Headquarters press conference in New York today.

Ms. Tibaijuka cited the report as stating that, although more than 70 per cent of the populations of Europe, North America and Latin America were already urban, Asia and Africa, which were predominantly rural, with 41 per cent and 39 per cent of their populations, respectively, living in urban areas, were in for a major demographic shift.

By the middle of the twenty-first century, the total urban population of the developing world would more than double, increasing from 2.3 billion in 2005 to 5.3 billion in 2050.  In the last two decades alone, the urban population of the developing world had grown by an average of 3 million people per week.  She said that, given such an enormous demographic shift and transformation taking place so rapidly, the trend was sometimes overwhelming the available resources to address the situation.  Further, one out of every three people living in the cities of the developing world lived in slum and squatter settlements.

A slum was defined by the report as any dwelling that had no access to water or sanitation and was either made of not durable building materials, was overcrowded or had insecurity of tenure.  However, she explained, the report found that not all slum-dwellers suffered the same degree or magnitude of deprivation, nor were all slums homogenous.  Some, in fact, provided better living conditions than others, and the degree of deprivation depended on how many of the five “shelter deprivations” used to measure slums defined above were associated with a particular slum household.

She said that it was noteworthy that the report was coming out on the heels of the global financial crisis, triggered by the sub-prime mortgage meltdown in the United States.  That meltdown has had what she described as “a global contagion of unmeasurable proportions”.  As a result, the world was now at a point of a food crisis, an energy crisis and housing crisis.  The only encouraging sign was that world leaders were trying to rise to the challenge and give housing finance the attention it had always deserved but had really been kept out of the mainstream whereby households had been left to fend for themselves both in the developed and developing countries.

The concept of “harmonious cities”, reflected in the report’s theme, sought to show that sustainable urbanization was a key to sustainable development, she explained, adding that, if the world did not put its environmental, social, political, economic and cultural systems in place, the world’s populations would not be able to live happily together in its cities.  The report looked at the challenge of inequality as an incubator, if not a recipe for social tension and disorder and found serious challenges also in the developed countries.

Expressing her concern about the increasing levels of urban inequality, Ms. Tibaijuka called for enlightened and committed political leadership combined with effective urban planning, governance and management, and added:  “We’re saying, really, that if you want to have peace and prosperity, which is what the United Nations is all about, then we have to confront the challenges of inequality.”  Additionally, and as if that challenge alone were not big enough, there was also the spectre of climate change complicating the picture even more.  She stressed the need to promote equality and sustainability in order to build harmonious cities.

According to the report, Asia was urbanizing rapidly, with approximately 41 per cent of its inhabitants now living in cities.  By 2050, Asia would host 63 per cent of the global urban population, or some 3.3 billion people.  Similarly, the rate of change for the urban population in Africa was the highest in the world.  If current trends continued, by 2050 half of that continent’s population would be urban.  With 1.2 billion people living in cities and towns, African cities would soon host nearly a quarter of the world’s urban population.

Concerned about the implications of that dramatic change in human history, in his foreword to the report, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pointed out that, although cities embodied some of society’s most pressing challenges, from pollution and disease to unemployment and lack of adequate shelter, they also presented real opportunities.  He then called on city authorities to advance the prosperity of their inhabitants while achieving equitable social outcomes and sustainable use of resources.

Elaborating on the report’s key findings via a PowerPoint presentation, Mr. Moreno highlighted the fact that in Africa the slum proportion was particularly high in countries such as Ethiopia, Angola, Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Mozambique, Niger, Sierra Leone and the Sudan, where slum households were likely to lack clean water, improved sanitation, durable housing or sufficient living space.  In many cases, slum-dwellers in those countries not only suffered from one shelter deprivation, but from three or more.

He said a second group of countries in sub-Saharan Africa had large slum concentrations but fewer instances of multiple shelter deprivations.  Among them were Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Gabon, Kenya, Ghana and Senegal.  Although the majority of urban households in those countries could be classified as slums, most suffered from only one deprivation.  According to the report, that meant that a simple programme tackling the lack of improved water, sanitation or housing could contribute significantly to improving the lives of slum-dwellers.

The report also warned that few coastal cities would be spared by climate change and urged policymakers and planners to particularly heed the warning.  Of the 3,351 cities in the low-elevation coastal zones of the world, 64 per cent were in developing regions; Asia alone accounted for more than half of the most vulnerable cities, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (27 per cent) and Africa (15 per cent).  Two thirds of those cities were in Europe; almost one fifth of all cities in North America were in low-elevation coastal zones.

He further noted the report’s finding that major cities in the United States, such as Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Miami and New York, had the highest levels of inequality in the country, similar to those of Abidjan, Nairobi, Buenos Aires and Santiago.  At the other end of the world, Beijing was considered to be the most equal city in the world, while the most egalitarian cities in the world were located in Western Europe.  Also, it came as no surprise that cities in sub-Saharan Africa had the highest levels of urban poverty in the world.  Although rural poverty was pervasive in the region, more than 50 per cent of the urban population in the poorest countries lived below the poverty line.

In South African and Namibian cities, inequalities were most pronounced and extraordinarily high, despite the dismantling of apartheid in the early 1990s.  In fact, urban inequalities in those two countries were even higher than those of Latin American cities, said the report.

On the issue of carbon emissions, Mr. Moreno cited the report as having found that there was no question that cities were key to efforts aimed at reducing carbon emissions and sustainable use of resources.  With the urban population of the world set to escalate over the next few decades, it had become even more important to understand the role of cities in the area of climate change and in producing carbon emissions.  As things stood, cities generated a disproportionate share of a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), which typically translated into high levels of energy consumption for industrial process.

Although it was a well-known fact that North America, with a GDP of $28,910 and 5.2 per cent of the global population, contributed 13.7 per cent of the global emissions in 2000, the rise of newly urbanizing countries such as China and India made it even more critical to understand the contribution of cities to climate change.  After all, North America, the European Union, Russian Federation, China and India now contributed approximately 61 per cent of global emissions.  In 2007, according to the report, China surpassed the United States as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases.  That increase had been attributed largely to an increase in coal consumption and industrial processes.  It also noted that energy consumption was the largest contributor to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the leading cause of global warming and climate change.

On urban mobility, the report found that, despite the perception that the private car played a dominant role in urban mobility everywhere, data showed that this was true only in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East.  Elsewhere, non-motorized and mass transit modes prevailed.

In answer to a correspondent’s question, Ms. Tibaijuka said that, in general terms, Chinese cities appear to have done better than most within the group of developing countries in eliminating inequalities because of the kind of deliberate public or social policies that the country pursued such as providing affordable housing across different income levels.  She added that that did not mean there were no problems; it was used merely as a policy indicator.

To another question, both Ms. Tibaijuka and Mr. Moreno said urbanization was “irreversible” and there were no indications that the opposite was going to happen in the near future.  She explained that people are drawn towards cities because basically that was where “things happen -- science, technology, politics, finance, you name it.  It’s all in the city,” she said.  That trend, therefore, made the city the settlement of the future because people moved with economic development and structural transformation.

However, in places like Africa and a good number of Asian countries, largely, the least developed countries had “premature urbanization”, meaning that moving to the cities was accompanied by neither rising agricultural productivity nor rural development, thus making those countries dependent on international trade and food aid, without which they would not be able to feed their cities.  That was also partly the reason why Africa today was a net food importer, she added.

* *** *

For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.