The challenges of urbanisation – How cities have to reinvent themselves
Across the world, people are relocating to cities. They are the places in which global challenges emerge, but at the same time, where change and progress are shaped. The New Urban Agenda has to support cities to fulfil their role as central actors for sustainable development.
“Cities are places in which the fight for sustainable development will be won or lost.”
Ban Ki-moon, 8th Secretary General of the United Nations (2007-2016)
The future of our world is urban. We are currently experiencing the greatest push in urbanisation in human history. According to UN DESA, with a total of 55%, more than half of all the people on the planet are living in cities and metropolitan areas for the first time ever, and by 2050, this will be 66%. Predominantly small and medium-sized cities in Asia and Africa will grow quickly in the coming decades. This will affect the so-called informal settlement areas in particular: between the years 2000 to 2014 alone, the number of people living in slums across the world rose from 792 million to more than 880 million people.
The affected cities are being transformed at breath-taking speed. However, a large part of the required infrastructure – housing, road and transport systems, waste, sanitation and energy systems, water supply and disposal, as well as public spaces and green areas – have not yet been planned, let alone built. On the other hand, public services can often only be earmarked on a temporary basis or obtained informally by the residents. But in certain cases- such as with burning rubbish in the neighbourhoods and tapping power lines – this means a high health risk; often the informal procurement of services conflicts with sustainable local development.
Advanced urbanisation holds many challenges. The consumption of resources in the expanding cities is not only growing enormously, but also the high pollutant emissions associated with this and the rising noise levels are increasingly affecting the health of the residents. Clean air, drinking water and land are becoming expensive, to some extent unaffordable, goods. A lack of investment in infrastructure and missing strategies for land management, such as formalising property and ownership rights, and for land use management, frequently affect the poorest social strata and strengthen social inequality in the urban population. The lack of central transport axes makes it difficult to access local markets, and long journeys for commuters and suppliers cripple the development of the urban economic region. Streams of refugees, as well as migrants or returning migrants, are also challenging receiving communities.
As centres of human development, social interaction and often driving economic forces of a country, cities and municipalities provide numerous opportunities for economic, technical, social, political and cultural progress and transformation. There is enormous potential in cities for poverty reduction, climate protection, disaster prevention, resource efficiency, fighting social inequality and promoting integration, as well as political engagement. Yet across the world, there is a lack of decisive courses for direction to increase quality of life for all city dwellers, and for stronger urban environmental and resource protection. Therefore, it is important to develop efficient municipalities and to involve the city population in planning and decision-making processes. The digital age and the existing varied use of various media also plays a central role in the development of cities, and should be utilised for greater efficiency by the local authorities, as well as for improved participation opportunities among the urban population. In the urban centres of this world, it will not only determine whether future development can be shaped sustainably across the world, but also how the majority of humanity will live in future.
How inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities can be designed in future and which paths there are to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs) are therefore the key questions of our time. The requirements and changes in cities are strongly dependent on context and demand local solutions. That is why it is essential that implementation strategies are not determined centrally by national government, but are developed and implemented locally and collaboratively with the relevant actors. Local governments therefore require the relevant financial resources and staff capacities to respond to planning and investment needs. They require clear, legally bound mandates, regular financial revenue and particularly in crisis situations, support in the provision of basic infrastructures, too.
Therefore, there ought to be a key objective at international, national and regional level to support cities and municipalities in strengthening their skills and mandates, as well as improving their financial autonomy. This is possible, for example, by formalising favourable framework conditions for successful collaboration between the levels of government, but also for municipal authorities, engaged citizens, business and scientific communities. The reason for this is because only needs-oriented, integrated and inclusive strategies and concepts can be developed in this way and put into practice. City partnerships and learning networks also offer enormous potential for mutual knowledge exchange, as well as three-way and South-South cooperation. In addition, cities must support the development of management, planning and implementation capacities in a targeted way, but also in the provision of infrastructure. The huge need for investment should not be disregarded.
So much for the theory. The current status quo demonstrates a lack of relevant political, structural and financial framework conditions and structures in particular. The growing need for action due to expanding urbanisation is being increasingly recognised and has received enormous momentum this year, the year of the “Third World Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development” (Habitat III in short). An important first step has already been taken: international agreements, notably the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Addis Ababa financing for development agreement and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, highlight the central importance of urban spaces.
The New Urban Agenda, the outcome document of the Habitat III Conference (which will take place in October 2016 in Quito, Ecuador) should be adopted by the heads of state and leaders of the member states of the United Nations, must now be adopted by governments, especially at local, regional and national levels, as well as support all relevant stakeholders to meet this developmental role. It offers the chance to specifically set out the tasks and action recommendations for cities and to establish the role of the international community in the efforts. This also includes political framework conditions and their sets of rules, as well as the corresponding finance models. On top of this, effective follow-up processes and review mechanisms must be implemented to be able to examine the agreed objectives over the coming years. In this way, it can quickly be established where any adjustments or changes have to be made.
From a German perspective, the Habitat III Conference and with it the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, will be a success if the highest political levels recognise that urbanisation certainly brings challenges for sustainable development on a global scale, but also offers a huge opportunity. If the Agenda confirms the cultural, economic, ecological and social autonomy and with it also the creative potential of small, medium, large and mega cities, and recognises these as central development actors, this means that it will not be a “blueprint for the city of the future”. Rather, it will be a New Urban Agenda that is valid universally; that motivates, mobilises and provides freedom to the member states, their communities and relevant actors to independently and sustainably promote the urban developments of our time.