04/14/2015 10:46 am ET Updated Jun 10, 2015

Preparation of the World Summit on the New Urban Agenda (Habitat III)

An International Conference is taking place in Nairobi, at UN-Habitat Headquarters, from 14-16 April 2015. It will initiate a broad negotiation on the world urbanization challenges which should lead a radical redefinition of urban policies by October 2016.

Today the world counts 7.3 billion inhabitants of which 4 billion live in cities (54 % of the total population). Thirty five years ago, in 1980, there were 4.4 billion people of which 1.7 billion lived in cities (40 %). In thirty five years from now, in 2050, there will be 9.5 billion people on our planet of which 6.3 billion urban dwellers (66 %). We are therefore witnessing a huge urban transition, one of the most important migrations of history that brings with it numerous challenges as well as opportunities in the political, economic, social and environmental areas. The Nairobi Conference will define the main features of a World Summit that will bring together all UN Member States to Quito in October 2016 and will guide housing and urban policies for the coming two decades. The main challenges could be captured under four issues that all countries, rich or poor, have to face.

1. How to make cities politically and financially autonomous?
In many countries municipalities totally rely on higher levels of public administration. While they are closer to the citizens than regional and national spheres of government, they have neither the resources nor the mandate needed to ensure a satisfactory urban management. However, all governments agree in principle that they need to strengthen human resources of local authorities, to decentralize responsibilities and promote participatory governance. But municipal finances, often insufficient, constitute a major bottleneck. Cities should be empowered to collect land and property rates and business taxes and to use them to improve infrastructure and services. Municipal management should be transparent and subject to democratic control. It should be supported by simple urban regulations which must be properly enforced. Latin America, a highly urbanized region, has made some progress in these fields during the last two decades, for instance with the participatory budgeting processes adopted by a number of Brazilian cities.

2. How to eliminate spatial exclusion, segregation, ghettos, urban apartheid?
The division of cities between poor and posh neighborhoods, the proliferation of gated communities and under-equipped and dangerous areas are features common to many cities, in the North and the South. Ensuring urban equity probably represents the major challenge that public authorities have to face in all regions of the world. This is a difficult task as the market economy is fundamentally inequitable: indeed the price of land (and therefore of housing units) varies enormously according to its location. This implies that affirmative actions are required to improve slum settlements, to develop and support social housing, to provide basic services (water, sanitation, electricity, communication), to ensure human safety. All these measures exist at various degrees in industrialized and emerging countries, also in South East Asia and the Arab world, but the truly inclusive city still remains a faraway perspective. Often a long term vision and a continuity of operational set-ups are absent and nice speeches replace concrete actions.

3. How to increase the contribution of cities to economic growth?
A clear correlation has been established between urbanization and economic development. However, a lot remains to be done if cities are to fully play their role of engines of growth. Firstly, it is necessary to organize and correctly plan the urban space to allow economic activities to deliver their full potential. Secondly, urban planning should be participatory, it should involve economic actors (including public and private investors) and should be implemented in a compulsory way. Priorities generally include the regulation of land markets, the development of trunk infrastructure, and the expansion of formal and informal employment, including in the construction sector. Besides, success depends on territorial synergies to be established within urban corridors and macro-regions. China's rapid economic development can be partly explained by the complementarities established among cities and with rural areas, particularly in its eastern regions.

4. How to better integrate environmental issues into urban planning and management
During the last thirty years, ecological issues have become increasingly important concerns in all continents. The need to reduce energy consumption by optimizing public transport and promoting green buildings is now universally recognized. Similarly, the adaptation of cities to climate change, the reduction of CO2 emissions, and the resilience to natural disasters have become consensual subjects. Experts insist on the densification of urban fabrics, on compact cities but also on smooth mobility. They highlight the importance of public and green spaces and of cultural life in the city. Europe shows the way in all these areas but the rest of the world still struggles to reconcile socioeconomic objectives with environmental protection. In many countries sustainable development appears more as a mobilizing utopia than as a short-term achievable goal.

Indeed the future of humankind is at stake in the cities of the world which are complex entities, products of a long history, cradles of civilizations, all different and unique but sharing a number of characteristics. Cities, large and small, could be better planned, better managed, more equitable, more convivial and more efficient provided urban dwellers take their destiny in their hands, assert their rights and assume their responsibilities. Social urban movements, that play an essential role in citizen's mobilization, exert a growing pressure on politicians and decision makers. These leaders should review their priorities, their commitments, their strategies and devote much more attention to urban issues. It is unfortunate that only a few countries have so far been able to define and publicize a meaningful national urban policy. The road to Quito offers an excellent opportunity to fill this gap and build a consensus around a New Urban Agenda for the world.

Daniel Biau

Daniel Biau is a Civil Engineer, Urban Planner and Doctor in Social Sciences. He is a former Deputy Executive Director of UN-Habitat, the City Agency of the United Nations.