Habitat III, the Third International Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, offers the world an exceptional opportunity to rethink the sustainability of our urban model. It is largely recognized that cities have become the main driver of economic development. Yet an analysis of the urbanization of the last two decades reveals that current urban practices are unsustainable: our cities consume 78 per cent of the world’s energy, produce more than half of all greenhouse gas emissions and consume much more land than is needed, with consequent environmental impacts.
The New Urban Agenda is a set of strategies that aim at reducing and reversing these negative trends, by advocating a new model of urban development that results in equity, prosperity and environmental sustainability. It will be a guiding framework that, if implemented, will lead to better planned, designed, and governed cities in a world where half of its people are already urban. Good urbanization is essential to the success of Agenda 2030 and to the well-being of billions of people.
One key question in this analysis is to identify how good, well-planned urbanization can contribute to the planet's environmental sustainability. Urbanization that promotes compactness, connectivity and walkability is good for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Agglomeration and proximity provide enormous opportunities for energy efficiency. Compact and connected urban development results in lower greenhouse gas emissions and can also reduce the capital and operating costs of basic infrastructure and services.
The latest UN-Habitat analysis of world urbanization reveals, however, that the current model of urbanization does not follow these principles. Cities are increasingly less planned, leading to spontaneous urbanization, which in turn decreases the quality of life for millions. The density of cities has also declined by 52.5 per cent and 37.5 per cent in developed and developing countries, respectively, over the last 20 years. Such urban sprawl and reduced density is a result of lifestyle change, suburbanization both for the rich (in gated communities) and the poor (in mass housing schemes), land speculation, and spontaneous and informal land occupation.
Excessive urban expansion, combined with a corresponding decrease in density, has contributed to: the increased need for transport (and thus energy consumption); environmental degradation; growing per capita costs of urban services (water, sanitation and drainage); increased per capita costs of public space and infrastructure; and decreased productivity through urbanization, with less economies of agglomeration.
We must address this quickly, and effectively. UN-Habitat proposes a paradigm shift based around five strategies:
1) Develop National Urban Policies which establish mechanisms of coordination between central and local governments, preventing duplication of services and costs. These amalgamate the dispersed energy and potential of urban centres within a national system or hierarchy of cities and towns. They help coordinate the work of different sectors and tiers of government, establish incentives for more sustainable practices, and provide a basis for the allocation of resources.
2) Ensure proper urban legislation. Robust legislation, and its equitable implementation, shapes operational principles and stabilizes organizational structures, fostering institutional and social relationships that underpin the process of urbanization.
3) Support urban planning and design. Good planning can change a city’s internal structure, form and functionality, contributing to a more compact, integrated and connected layout, and leading to sustainable solutions. Densification, social diversity, climate change mitigation and adaptation, the sustainable use of natural resources, and adequate public spaces - including vibrant streets - are all results of good urban planning and design.
4) Urbanization must be financed. In order to create employment, urban areas and regions require strong economic growth strategies that take into account regeneration, cluster development and industrial zones. Strengthening municipal finance is about realigning fiscal authority, responsibility and revenue sharing, i.e. achieving the right balance between different levels of government, designing new financial mechanisms, exploring new sources of capital, and improving revenue collection systems and budget management and transparency.
5) Finally, in expanding a city, we must maintain planned city extensions and planned city in-fills. This results in lowered urban energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
With the adoption of the Paris Agreement and, soon, a New Urban Agenda, there is renewed impetus for action. The New Urban Agenda is an opportunity further to improve the sustainability of our planet. It envisages cities that protect their ecosystems (water, natural habitats, and biodiversity) and minimize their environmental impact by changing to sustainable consumption and production patterns. At Habitat III, participants will have the opportunity to discuss environmental issues through the lens of urbanization: clean energy, sustainable use of land and resources in urban development; sound waste management; digitalization of services; innovative transport technologies; protecting ecosystems and biodiversity; sustainable consumption and production patterns; urban resilience; reducing disaster risks; and mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Let us seize this opportunity and achieve a better urban world for all.