UN Habitat World Cities Report: Looking Towards Habitat III

by Rebekah Revello

World Cities Report Review

On May 18th, UN HABITAT released their 2016 world cities report, and it is jam-packed with the ups and downs and challenges cities are bound to give us in the next few decades. The report is accompanied with a fun, century spanning joke: “the earth is not flat, it’s urban.” It shows that the rapid global urbanization is as much a shock to the world as the groundbreaking discovery of a spherical earth centuries ago. The report is broken down into chapters, each of which addresses certain challenges and policy priorities.

The opening chapter serves as a preamble for the event that everyone in the urban development community has been exhaustively talking about for the past year: Habitat III. The report stresses that from Habitat II in 1996 to now, the urban landscape has gone through staggering changes in climate, family patterns, growth of inequality, and access to services. Urban growth is, naturally, increasing exponentially, partly due to the massive exodus of urban migrants that the world has been dealing with for the past 6 years and partly because of the natural growth of urban populations. Along this timeline, slums have reached maximum capacity, and more and more informal settlements have popped up to accommodate the unprecedented amount of people that arrive every day. It’s commonly known that more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, but if you’re not already tired of statistics, here are a few more the report points out:

  • As health science has rapidly progressed in the last century, the decline in infant mortality and high fertility rate has resulted in an overwhelmingly young population. Forty percent of the world’s population is under 24 years old.
  • Naturally, progress in health science means that people live longer too. The global population ages 60 and over is the fastest growing population, with a rate of 3.26% per year, and in 2015 12% of the world’s population- a whopping 901 million people- fit into this category.
  • 80% of the world’s GDP comes from cities.
  • Cities, as the result of the amount of people living there, are responsible for more than 70% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

With these decidedly worrying facts in mind, UN Habitat has sorted out its views and priorities: the current model of urbanization is unsustainable at its best, and many cities are unprepared for the challenges urbanization presents. What is known is that a proper urbanization system promotes social and economic advancement to improve the quality of life of all. This is what Habitat III is hoping to do with the New Urban Agenda. The issues leading up to the New Urban Agenda are laid out in the next nine chapters of the report; here’s a brief look at the chapters and what’s at stake.

Urbanization as a transformative force Cities are now at the core of international development- something that was discussed by Ian Klaus at the IHC Open Forum on May 10- and their position presents new exciting opportunities.  UN Habitat outlines four issues from which cities can spearhead global change in sustainable development: the dynamic economic transition of cities in a national and global context, the evolving spatial form of cities, the capacity of cities to address environmental issues, and the emergence of smart and connected cities, driven by information and communications technologies and city and big data.

The Fate of Housing

Housing is something that IHC is particularly passionate about. IHC counts Housing as a Driver for Equitable Development as one of our key policy topics, so we will be paying close attention to how these issues will unfold at and following Habitat III. UN Habitat states that “the ‘emerging futures’ of cities will largely depend on whether urban housing is cast in decent buildings or in loads more unsustainable, ramshackle shelter.”  This means that housing must become a priority to national and international development agendas, something that wasn’t pushed during Habitat II.  One of the solutions UN Habitat presents pushes for elevating the importance of the house to make it a “home.” This is reminiscent of the goal set by Eduardo Rojas during the IHC Open Forum, where he said that cities and their nations need to expand the idea of a house, so that it’s not just a place to sleep at night but an integral part of society. But the largest challenge that many cities face are the slums and other substandard housing that bring down quality of life. Solutions to slums will lead to improved life for all, but successful solutions will need to be diverse.

The Urban Divide    

The slum issue is just one aspect of the growing urban divide. Cities by nature are hubs for different ethnicities, religions and backgrounds to interact with one another, but as more and more diverse peoples come to stay in cities, the natural divisions are becoming deeper. According to the UN Habitat quick facts, 75% of the world’s cities have a have higher levels of income inequality than two decades ago. This is rather alarming, considering it is commonly thought (or at least thought by me) that the world was actually improving in these matters. It’s clear that there needs to be a new international commitment to creating inclusive cities, and Habitat III could inspire leadership on this topic. This is probably one of the most challenging issues that cities face, because social norms have time and time again proven to be quite difficult to change. On top of that, the effort doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of officials, but on those of common people expected to change their entire social outlook. IHC believes that inclusiveness can be achieved through a combination of economic, social, service delivery and physical (spatial) policies, programs and investments that incorporate city people from all walks of life.

Environmental Sustainability    

While all of the issues noted so far are based on the human experience of the city, environmental sustainability remains the pressing matter that hangs over our heads. Understanding the connections between economic development and environmental protection is imperative for the future of cities, and urban sustainability as a whole cannot be looked at without realizing the important relationship between cities and their environments.  The hard truth is that urbanization, while good for people, has proven to be not so good for the environment. So going forward, environmental planning has to be an aspect of urban planning in general, including preparations for disasters, natural and man-made.

Urban Governance and Legislation and Reinventing Urban Planning

Speaking of which, reinventing urban planning, governance and legislation is a necessary first step for every city to take in this new development age. The new urban policies need to be inclusive, accessible, realistic and credible above all. To sum up, city laws and planning need to be effective, and in order to be effective, cities should face the harsh realities of what they cannot do. Developing countries are at a disadvantage; they do not have the same planning capacity as countries who far outrank them in GDP, and many cities struggle to incorporate women, disabled populations and other disadvantaged groups into their policies.* In general, cities should not shoot for unrealistic expectations or neglect the difficult issues at hand. As long as new policies and planning procedures are seen by the public- and any interested investors and NGOs- as credible and successful, there is a good chance that they will work, and that cities will rise.

The Changing Dynamics of Urban Economics

Urban economics are uneven due to- you guessed it- inadequate urban infrastructure that is unable to accommodate the rapid growth and resources that cities demand. Where some mega cities have benefitted from the rapid growth, many cities in developing countries are lagging under the stress. Although economic development has historically been associated with urban development, we are finding that this is not always the case today due in part to the rapid pace. The economic issues are highly dependent on the other issues named in these chapters, especially housing, legislation, and bridging the urban divide.

The very heart and soul of Habitat III is the New Urban Agenda, the “Zero Draft” of which has recently been issued and on which the UN is holding informal consultations with stakeholders.  The draft New Urban Agenda will be a blueprint for future urban development.  This new Cities report by UN Habitat provides an up to date accounting of the state of the world’s cities in 2016. It will hopefully provide another input to the process and inform the negotiations that take place between now and October.

These issues are complex and diverse, and IHC sees many of the same barriers to equitable growth in this paper as we do in our own work.  We hope that work like this will help focus attention on these barriers and transform them into the drivers of the next two decades of equitable urban development. Overall, these goals are ambitious, but the fate of urban life is in good hands. See IHC Global’s Statement on the New Urban Agenda here.

*Tune in next week for our blog post about gender and land security!