9 June 2015

Battle for Sustainable Development Will Be Won or Lost in Cities, Deputy Secretary-General Tells Mayor’s Forum

Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson’s opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, at the Mayor's Forum of the World Cities Summit, in New York today:

I am honoured to speak here at the World Cities Summit.  I am particularly pleased to be able to represent the United Nations at this gathering in the city of New York.  New York today is the epitome of how cities can bring people, cultures and communities from around the world in a way that enriches us all.  A city as multicultural as the United Nations itself has a special place in my heart.

The Summit’s theme, “Innovative Cities of Opportunity”, truly captures the powerful potential of cities to shape our future.  Cities are where the battle for sustainable development will be won — or lost if we fail.  In 2050, around 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas.  Cities are where economic, social, cultural and environmental aspects of human activity come together in a dynamic way.

Cities are where 80 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) is generated.  Cities also account for just over half of global greenhouse gas emissions and 75 per cent of global energy consumption.  Cities are therefore at the forefront of the global battle against climate change.  The way in which cities are planned, run and managed is crucial.  The leadership role of mayors and city governments is therefore of fundamental importance.

Rising inequality is today a universal concern and very much a reality in cities.  Poverty is increasingly concentrated in urban areas.  Close to one billion of the world’s urban dwellers still live in dire, even life-threatening, slum conditions — this figure is projected to rise to 1.6 billion by 2030.  Two and one half billion people in the world lack access to improved sanitation, not least in urban areas.  Slums are the physical manifestation of inequality and poverty.

There are also growing difficulties in integrating migrants, creating ethnically and socially fragmented areas of cities.  Insensitive planning and inaccessible infrastructure and public services also build barriers which prevent women, persons with disabilities and senior citizens from benefitting from urban development.

We need policies that safeguard opportunities and equity for all.  And we need policies that help place the world on a sustainable development path which respects our planet’s ecological limits.  If cities join forces with Governments, the private sector, civil society and urban planners, they can become the hubs for climate and development solutions.  Well-planned and well-managed cities will reduce poverty, protect citizens from climate impacts and stimulate sustainable economic growth.

Urbanization varies in every sociocultural and economic context.  Each requires focussed innovative solutions.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach.  This is why it is important for countries and cities to develop urban policies that capture their own unique circumstances and aspirations. 

At the same time, we should be guided by certain core principles of sustainable urban planning and design:  human rights and the rule of law, not least strong institutions, must be promoted and protected; equitable urban development and inclusive growth must be ensured; civil society and democratic participation must be expanded; environmental sustainability must be pursued.

Urbanization is one of the strongest defining forces shaping the twenty-first century.  Urbanization can be a transformative force for the sustainable development goals by making cities and human settlements safe, resilient and sustainable.  The leaders who best adapt to this demographic and cultural shift will be the ones whose cities will be more economically viable, more environmentally sustainable and more socially vibrant.

As you know, 2015 is a milestone year for global sustainable development.  Three upcoming meetings this year give us an historic opportunity to chart a new era of transformative change:  in July in Addis Ababa, where we will agree on a financing framework for development; in September here in New York, where we will launch a new sustainable development goals framework; and in December in Paris, where we are to agree on a new climate deal.

Member States have recognised the key role that cities and urbanization will play in the new agenda.  In particular, proposed Goal 11 of the new sustainable development goals calls on the international community to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

Mayors have played an important role in defining the new agenda.  Mr. Kadir Topbaş, the mayor of Istanbul, was one of the eminent members of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.  Former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg is currently the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change.  Through organizations such as United Cities and Local Governments, the voices of mayors have come to New York as part of the global process.

Similarly, mayors will continue to play a critical role in the implementation of the post-2015 development agenda and the Paris climate change agreement, when global goals will need to be integrated into local realities and communicated to local communities.  I look forward to the continued engagement of mayors in this year’s critical high-level meetings.

Preparations are also under way for the third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, in Ecuador in October 2016.  Habitat III will reinvigorate the global commitment to sustainable urbanization.  The Secretary-General and I look forward to these major steps in agenda-setting for cities and local governments and count on your leadership.

I encourage you to develop innovative approaches and solutions which feed back into global and national policy agendas, especially related to sustainable development, climate change and the Habitat III conference next year.  I wish you a very successful meeting and thank you for your attention.

For information media. Not an official record.