Economic and Social Council, Continuing Integration Segment, Focuses on Promises, Pitfalls of Urbanization

28 May 2014

Economic and Social Council, Continuing Integration Segment, Focuses on Promises, Pitfalls of Urbanization

28 May 2014
Economic and Social Council
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Economic and Social Council

2014 Substantive Session

16th & 17th Meetings (AM & PM)

Economic and Social Council, Continuing Integration Segment,

Focuses on Promises, Pitfalls of Urbanization


Speakers Highlight Impact of Crime, Inequality on Marginalized, Women, Youth

The promises and pitfalls of urbanization were the focus of two discussions as the Economic and Social Council continued its inaugural integration segment today.

One keynote speaker said that, with rapid urbanization already under way, leaders must act now to ensure that they were able to capitalize on opportunities, while minimizing inequalities.  “Our urgent plea is for leaders around the world and opinion-shapers to think very carefully, not just about where we want to go, but what is the most important thing to do now, today, to make it possible that we get there,” said Professor Paul Romer of New York University’s Stern School of Business.

In a morning dialogue titled, “Urban prosperity and urban inequalities”, participants examined how urbanization had resulted in increased inequalities, particularly in terms of housing, jobs, health care, security, information and technology.  One panellist, highlighting how urban inequalities were especially detrimental for women, pointed out that crime in cities hit them disproportionately hard, often forcing them into the shadows.  Efforts must be directed towards strengthening women’s organizing and leadership abilities so that they could be empowered to influence and change public policy, she said.

Participants, in the afternoon panel discussion, titled “Sustainable urbanization in Africa”, explored the ways in which rapid urbanization was expected to impact development on the continent.

Vladimir Drobnjak ( Croatia), Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, said that innovative solutions and integrated approaches to Africa’s “multitude of dynamic urban challenges” would require urgent international action.

Alongside growing urban populations, local authorities faced greater difficulty in ensuring access to energy, health care, housing and education, as well as water and sanitation, said one speaker, adding that significant financial resources were needed because African cities frequently faced revenue shortfalls and financing limitations.

Rapid urban growth also posed grave risks for the environment, participants pointed out.  A troubling cycle had emerged whereby people left their homes in remote, rural areas and relocated to new villages on the periphery of larger cities, where they consumed valuable agricultural lands.  There was a need for leaders to exercise extreme vigilance to prevent irreversible damage to the environment.

Among those participating today were speakers representing Bolivia (on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China), Kazakhstan, South Africa, Brazil, Kenya, Zimbabwe, France, United States, Egypt, China, African Union and Botswana.

The Director of International Labour Organization’s New York office also spoke.

Also speaking were representatives of three non-governmental organizations:  Sustainability, New Future Foundation and the Association of Third World Studies.

The Economic and Social Council will reconvene at 10 a.m. on 29 May to conclude its integration segment.


The Economic and Social Council met this morning to continue its integration segment.

Opening Remarks

VLADIMIR DROBNJAK ( Croatia), Vice President of the Economic and Social Council, introduced the panel discussion titled “Urban prosperity and urban inequalities”, noting that of the nearly 73 million new urban dwellers who would be added daily between 2014 and 2020, 67 million (92 per cent) would reside in cities and towns within developing countries.  That rapid growth had contributed to an increasing rural-urban divide, reinforcing socioeconomic inequalities.  Achieving socially sustainable development, reducing urban poverty and increasing accessibility must be part of urban development policy and decision-making, he said, adding that efforts to that end must promote the social inclusion of vulnerable and marginalized groups and ensure that their voices were heard throughout sustainable urbanization processes at all levels.


Moderated by Aisa Kirabo Kacyira, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), the dialogue featured the following panellists: Mpho Parks Tau, Mayor of Johannesburg, South Africa; Paul Carrasco, Prefect of Azuay, Ecuador; Zoubida Allaoua, Acting Vice-President and Network Head, Sustainable Development, World Bank; and Carmen Griffiths, Executive Director, Construction Resource and Development Centre, Kingston, Jamaica.  The discussant was Michal Mlynár, Permanent Representative of Slovakia to the United Nations agencies in Nairobi and Chair of the Committee of Permanent Representatives to UN-Habitat.

Ms. KACYIRA said “urban inequalities” was a pertinent theme that hopefully would prompt leaders to ask themselves what could be done to ensure that urbanization resulted in prosperity rather than inequalities and human rights violations.  Urbanization was often accompanied by increasing inequalities,particularly in the cities of Latin America and Africa.  It was important to examine what had gone wrong and why, taking into account best practices that demonstrated successful examples of urbanization, she said, expressing concern that the process was often accompanied by high levels of unemployment, especially for youth, which, in turn, led to conflict and strife.

Mr. TAU said that extensive research focused on four key outcome areas — development, job creation, environmental sustainability and justice, and good governance — had resulted in the adoption of strategies for building a resilient, sustainable and liveable city over the next three decades.  Strategies for the first decade aimed to ensure financial sustainability, resilience, institution-building, liveable settlements and deliverable services, among other things.  That was particularly important after South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which had required replenishment of Johannesburg’s financial ability.  Citing several initiatives, he said “corridors of freedom” built at the back of the bus transit system had been established.  They integrated poor, segregated neighbourhoods into the city’s commercial areas in order to create equal and equitable accessibility and opportunity.  Another initiative addressed the need to ensure a diverse electricity supply for everyone through an energy mix, including coal and gas supplies, as well as solar panels on rooftops.  In addition, 150 public hybrid buses running on a mix of biofuel and diesel would be operational by the end of the year.

Mr. CARRASCO said inequalities were the result of problems of access to services and the existence of a large informal sector.  The world was moving towards decentralization of the State, which generated a duplication of roles on the central and local levels.  Citizens must be included in decision-making and given responsibility for designing, building and implementing local public policies on the basis of their own interests.  There must be changes in the social fabric to encourage participation, he said, emphasizing that local leaders must facilitate citizen self-governance.  The de-politicization of citizens had caused them to opt out of participation because they believed somebody else was responsible for making decisions.  There must be a social model for small- and medium-sized cities and the development process should include the citizen input, he reiterated.

Ms. ALLAOUA, emphasizing that inequality was about lack of access to services, said that access to land and housing reduced inequality and was an area in which Governments could have an impact by incorporating flexible zoning, smaller plots and mixed land use, among other things.  Access to services was also crucial, especially in terms of connecting women and girls to labour markets and education.  Investing in transport, where Governments could bring in private and public partners to design policies to connect rural and urban areas, also opened up job opportunities, as seen in Rio de Janeiro, where a flat rate tariff allowed the use of multi-transit systems.  While research showed causality in terms of investing in services, there were no data to help Governments monitor impact and progress, she noted, stressing that the use of data must be transformed in order to enable Governments to fine-tune their efforts, measure progress and determine whether they were on track to reducing poverty.

Ms.  GRIFFITHS said that the impact of urbanization frightened her, particularly when considering women’s issues.  The faces of cities were changing, and small towns, especially, were now “bursting at the seams” due to urbanization.  The prevalence of poor housing was troubling, and the impact of inadequate housing was felt most acutely in the wake of natural disasters.  Sanitation was a huge problem, as was the availability of clean water and electricity.  Crime in cities also forced women into the shadows, she said.  She called for efforts to strengthen women’s organizing and leadership abilities so they could be empowered to influence and change public policy.  Transparency and accountability were critical components when considering the inequalities that women faced within cities.

Ms. MLYNÁR agreed that rising urban inequality, including the lack of equal access to jobs, health care, information and technology, was troubling.  Also of great concern was the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the rising trend of “urban division”, manifested through visible and invisible borders, including gated communities.  Urban inequalities must be addressed urgently and through joint efforts, otherwise they could lead to further social fracturing, political tension and even violence, she warned.  Noting that inequalities among urban populations had increased in the last 20 years, she said that if equity became an integral part of the development framework, deep challenges found within cities could be better addressed.  Security was among the basic pillars that people expected, yet leaders failed to recognize that security challenges were often rooted in inequalities, she said.

Panellists were asked to discuss land use and partnership strategies.

Ms.  GRIFFITHS emphasized the critical need for partnerships with local authorities and business.  In Jamaica, UN-Habitat worked with a community that had nothing.  The community, excited to be remembered, had engaged with the private sector and the University of Technology to create land maps, plan development strategies and repair roads.  “This is what we want when we talk about urban development,” she said.

Ms. ALLAOUA stressed the need for flexible zoning, allowing mixed land use, with high-rise building, as well as affordable housing.  That would engender social inclusion.  Governments could set policies that removed barriers, since there could be no discussion of reducing inequality without talking about reducing slums and providing basic water and sanitation services.  Turning to the question of partnerships, she underlined that the private sector existed for profit, not charity, and Governments must, therefore, provide good regulatory frameworks.

Mr. CARRASCO said urbanization processes needed territorial management plans that should be created by city leaders.  The plans should take into account the activities in which citizens wished to engage.  Waste management, resource protection, public transport and security must be built into urbanization plans, as well, he said, adding that all those issue areas must be addressed in the planning phase and on the basis of citizen priorities.

Mr. TAU said that building partnerships with private enterprise and communities was important, citing Johannesburg’s investment in municipal service programmes.  When communities took responsibility for such programmes, expenditures went down and communities benefitted directly.

A representative of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions said public-private partnerships were not always successful.  Instead, there should be a focus on strengthening local and regional authorities so that they could choose the model best suited to them.

The representative of France said her Government had established innovative partnerships involving all stakeholders in order to strengthen responses to demands from partner cities around the world.

The representative of South Africa said local governments were partners of the central Government and were often invited to express their views and provide guidance on their service requirements.

Also speaking were representatives of the non-governmental organizations Sustainability, New Future Foundation and the Association of Third World Studies.

Keynote Address

PAUL ROMER, Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business, then delivered the keynote address, saying that New York City was the perfect place in which to hold the session on urbanization.  People had come to the city because it gave them access to progress and change, although it had taken sacrifice on their part because of the cramped living conditions.  Leaders often found it difficult to identify the first steps for starting the process towards equitable progress, he said, adding that his studies pointed to a clear path of “what to do first” in terms of urbanization.  In New York, the foundation had been laid 200 years earlier, when planners had set aside the public space that would be needed for the millions of people who would one day call Manhattan “home”.

Planners knew that setting aside adequate public space, while costing nothing at the onset, would be crucial for the city’s eventual urbanization, he said.  It had taken 100 years to build all the streets and sidewalks in the initial plan for New York City, but the planners had created the conditions for successful progress.  It was expected that the process of rapid urbanization would be completed in about 100 years, so leaders had a unique opportunity now to create the conditions for progress.  “Our urgent plea is for leaders around the world and opinion shapers to think very carefully not just about where we want to go, but what is the most important thing to do now, today, to make it possible that we get there,” he stressed.

Mr. DROBNJAK ( Croatia), Council Vice-President, said before the general debate that the meeting was being webcast and that worldwide participation could be engaged via Twitter.

General Debate

Participants shared their respective national endeavours and spoke of the necessity to promote multi-level efforts while engaging all stakeholders towards sustainable urban development.

The representative of Bolivia, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said policies and development efforts aimed at eradicating poverty and providing affordable housing, among other things, must be at the heart of sustainable urbanization.  It was, therefore, imperative to mobilize and allocate adequate resources to help attain the development targets of the Habitat Agenda, Millennium Development Goals and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation.  He also urged Governments and Habitat Agenda partners to use planned city extension methodologies to prevent the proliferation of slums.

The representative of Kazakhstan emphasized that sustainable urbanization must support rural development, including by providing market hubs for rural produce.  Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, was a newly created city that allowed for the implementation of innovations in its production facilities, as well as its environmental and engineering infrastructure.

The representative of Kenya, associating herself with the Group of 77 and China, pointed out that 32 per cent of her compatriots lived in urban areas, a number that would rise as the country continued to industrialize.  Such rapid urbanization offered opportunities for the design of policies and programmes aimed at creating efficient urban centres.  By launching several initiatives, including the National Urban Development Policy, the Government was providing incentives to the private sector in the area of affordable housing, she said.

JANE STEWART, Director, International Labour Organization (ILO), said the magnitude and speed of urbanization, especially in developing countries, posed a challenge to the provision of adequate jobs, infrastructure and social protection, with a growing number of jobseekers unable to find work.  Cities and towns would not be sustainable unless that was properly addressed, she warned, noting that labour-intensive investments in infrastructure created jobs in urban areas.  They did not require large injections of external resources, but could be implemented using locally available resources while producing three to five times more direct employment than conventional small- and medium-scale infrastructure methods.

ANDREW REYNOLDS, Chair, United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development, highlighted the importance of engaging youth, notably in university-to-university collaborations, due to innovations in communication technology, saying students were showing great passion for engaging.  Also, Engineers Without Borders was putting students on the ground in developing countries, thereby unleashing the new generation to work efficiently together and take on the challenges of urban design.

Also participating in the general debate were representatives of South Africa, Brazil, Zimbabwe and France.

Mr. DROBNJAK (Croatia) introduced the panel discussion titled “Sustainable urbanization in Africa”, noting that the continent’s population was projected to nearly double from 1 billion in 2010 to almost 2 billion by 2040.  The rapid urbanization of African countries had numerous implications for sustainability, and finding innovative solutions and integrated approaches to the region’s “multitude of dynamic urban challenges” required urgent international action.

Panel Discussion

Moderating the discussion was Maged Abdelaziz, Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Africa.  The panellists were:  Akwasi Opong-Fosu, Minister for Local Government and Rural Development, Ghana; Jacqueline Moustache-Belle, Mayor of Victoria, Seychelles, and Co-President of United Cities and Local Governments; Amiri Nondo, Mayor of Morogoro, United Republic of Tanzania; Lazarous Kapambwe, Special Adviser on Economic Affairs to the Chairperson of the African Union Commission; and Abouhani Moulay Abdelghani, Director-General for Urbanization, Architecture and Planning, Morocco.  The discussant was Susan Parnell, Professor of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Mr. ABDELAZIZ said that, in light of the sheer magnitude of urban growth and its impact on sustainable development, sustainable urbanization was at the heart of Africa’s transformative development agenda.  As urban populations grew, local governments faced increasing difficulty in ensuring their access to energy, health care, housing and education, as well as water and sanitation.  In addition to other challenges were the growing population of young people and rising unemployment among them, he said, emphasizing the need for significant financial resources because African cities frequently faced revenue shortfalls, as well as limited scope in terms of sources and modalities of available financing.  Turning to the rural-urban nexus and its implications for the development of both, he said migration between urban and rural areas would be critical in managing urban growth and sustainability.  The Common African Position on the post-2015 development agenda, adopted by the African Union Heads of States and Government, was a people-centred position that emphasized prioritizing structural transformation for inclusive development.

Mr. Opong-FosU said that cities were not only growing, they were also producing an increasing amount of the world’s wealth.  They were becoming larger, more diverse, more complex, more fluid and less manageable.  The traditional city of the past no longer existed and cities of the future faced serious adaptive challenges.  Cities that could effectively adapt stood to benefit most from the opportunities presented by urbanization, he said.  Ghana had responded to urbanization’s challenges by implementing policies focused on decentralization and local governance, establishing a national action plan and creating a forum in which State and non-State actors could discuss urbanization issues.  Through such efforts, Africa was poised to create a “positive narrative” of urban challenges.

Ms. Moustache-Belle pointed out that, while Africa was still a rural continent, it was also the place where the highest urbanization rates were expected in the coming decades.  Accompanied by the dreams and expectations of those who arrived from their villages with high hopes, urbanization challenged outdated infrastructure, she said, while stressing, however, that simply improving services in rural areas alone was not the answer.  The solution would come from a combination of better services and adequate mobility.  Leaders could not continue to close their eyes to the obvious.  Cities must provide more, as well as upgraded services, while at the same time preparing the population for the threat posed by natural and man-made disasters.  Innovation and growth gave Africa an opportunity to take a leadership role in building more sustainable urban societies, and its leaders could avoid the mistakes made by others elsewhere, she stressed.  They must create new models of multi-level leadership.  She said that, being from the Seychelles, she wished to stress that the particular needs of small island developing States must be adequately reflected in the post-2015 framework.

Mr. NONDO said there had been insufficient measures for tracking Africa’s urbanization.  Furthermore, urbanization was not leading to an automatic rise in prosperity, but, in fact, increasing poverty and slums.  Decentralization and improved local government could play a major role in achieving equality and ensuring access to services and water for vulnerable populations.  However, local authorities needed appropriate support and empowerment to use tariffs and land values to raise revenue for investments.  They were also best placed to make strategic investments and target those most in need.  Urban policy should be like a cow, he said in conclusion.  “Crying more, more, more — meaning that we need more power.  Or, like the kid, saying now, now, now, because now is the time to see that local government is where things happen.  Urban policy is also like the dog that goes who, who, who, because you have to know who the local government is.”

Mr. KAPAMBWE recalled the many statistics cited over the past two days to prove Africa’s rapid urbanization and the complex challenges of managing it.  However, those numbers revealed what was essential, while concealing what was vital.  Rather than looking at the statistics purely from the enormity of challenges, urbanization should be embraced as a chance to discover how to transform challenges into opportunities.  Urbanization could be sustainable if planned, but the problem was that much of Africa’s urbanization was unplanned, he said, emphasizing the importance of a comprehensive and holistic approach involving non-State, local government and civil society and other stakeholders.  There was also a need to define rural and urban space, to explore what models of urban and rural planning were available, and which were relevant to what regions and countries.  Questions must be asked about the impact of each model, about the role of the green economy and technology in wetland, wild life, flora, fauna and water resources, and how urbanization was impacting Africa’s culture and open spaces.

Mr. ABDELGHANI said that cities were the driving force behind great change, particularly in North Africa.  Morocco faced rapid urbanization, and in recent decades, its urbanization rate had jumped from 8 per cent to more than 60 per cent.  However, there were discrepancies between urban planning tools and urban growth, which was very rapid, he said.  Urbanization plans could take four to six years to develop, whereas in some cases rapid urban growth only took four to six months.  There was considerable growth in “clandestine housing”, which posed serious risks for the environment.  Rapid urban growth on the fringes of traditional cities had resulted in the disruption of ecosystems and the disappearance of Morocco’s dunes and beaches.  In an emerging but troubling cycle, people were leaving their homes in remote, rural areas and relocating to new villages on the periphery of cities, he said, adding that the villages had grown to the point where they had begun to consume agricultural lands.  Leaders must adopt the necessary measures and exercise extreme vigilance, he emphasized.

Interactive Dialogue

Mr. OPONG-FOSU, responding to a question from the Moderator on the definition of “decentralization”, said the concept could vary from place to place, but to his mind, decentralization meant “devolution”, whereby decision-making power and resources were transferred from the central Government to local authorities.

Ms. MOUSTACHE-BELLE said that since given the scarcity of land, small island States would face the brunt of climate change, particularly erosion and rising sea levels.  Landslides and droughts brought on by climate change were also grave challenges.

Mr. NONDO noted that Africa’s urbanization was driven by the movement of people leaving rural areas for cities due to limited employment opportunities, poorly designed public services and lack of access to basic goods such as food and clothing.

Mr. KAPAMBWE said the African Union was drawing up “Agenda 2063”, a long-term vision created in consultation with the continent’s citizens.  Among their aspirations was to have a prosperous continent with inclusive and sustainable growth.  The African Union had also established a new programme for infrastructure development that was addressing needs in the areas of energy, trans-continental and regional transport, trans-boundary water sources, and information and communications technology.

Mr. ABDELGHANI, addressing the complexity of financing urbanization, said that in his country, “we have cities creating wealth, but poor municipalities”.  However, some of Morocco’s major social projects over the last decade, including “towns without slum dwellings”, had been financed primarily through domestic funding in partnership with UN-Habitat, with a tax on cement that went directly into the fund, he said.  Nonetheless, funding Morocco’s urbanization would require legislative reform that would see landowners share revenue from their land use.

Ms. PARNELL said that some specifics about Africa had been discussed, including its young population and the importance of gender, among others.  However, the continent was also “one place where there’s not enough money to meet the demands of infrastructure”.  There had also been gaps in the discussions.  Nobody had spoken about conflict, crime or and violence, among other things, she said, pointing out that Africa had experienced an unfair proportion of violence, mostly in cities.  Additionally, nobody had spoken about urban health or the complexity of governmental arrangements, she said, noting that local authorities carried a great deal of responsibility but had little or no power.  With central, as well as local governments weak and under-resourced, the governmental elite ran African cities, she said.  Nonetheless, the discussion had put an enormous amount on the table, posing questions about leadership, financing and planning.

The representative of Egypt asked panellists for examples of practical ways to balance rural and urban development.  He also asked how decentralization and private sector involvement could help address Africa’s urbanization challenges.

The representative of the African Union asked panellists to give examples of how cities and towns could cooperate on urbanization issues.

The representative of South Africa questioned whether Africa could “do it alone”.  Partnership was very important, he said, stressing that Africa truly could not manage urbanization without support.  Capacity-building and investment were critical to enabling Africa to “turn the corner”.

Also speaking were the representatives of China, Botswana and France, as well as the non-governmental organization, New Freedom Foundation.

In closing remarks, panellists addressed comments and questions from the floor, underscoring the private sector’s key role in Africa’s urbanization and development, as well as in decentralization, all of which would help build the necessary infrastructure and create economic opportunities.

Mr. ABOUHANI, referring to South-South cooperation, said that Morocco was deepening its engagement with some West African countries.  Their joint efforts aimed at training, supporting agencies and sharing best practices; they were “literally learning from one another”.

Ms. MOUSTACHE-BELLE noted that women’s empowerment, perceived by some as “maybe too slow”, was indeed progressing.  Years ago, she had been the only female mayor in Africa.  At a recent meeting, there had been four.  There were also women Presidents.  Empowerment was happening, she concluded.

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