WITH more than two-thirds of humanity expected to live in cities by the middle of this century, strong, well-planned urbanization is vital for development, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told an international group of government officials and experts on housing last week in New York.
The group is part of the first session of the preparatory committee for the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development to take place in 2016, which is known as Habitat III and aims to "reinvigorate the global commitment to sustainable urbanization."
"Urban areas are at the heart of many great challenges, opportunities and promise," Mr Ban said, adding that urbanization is a driving force as well as a source of development. "It has the power to change and improve the lives. Urban areas are at the heart of many great challenges, opportunities and promise."
Earlier this year, the UN revealed that 54 per cent of the world's population now lives in urban areas, with an additional 2.5 billion people predicted to live in urban areas by 2050. Approximately 37 per cent of the projected growth will come from India, which currently has the largest rural population, as well as China and Nigeria.
According to the UN, the world's largest city is Tokyo with 38 million inhabitants, and while its population is expected to decline to 37 million by 2030, it will remain at the top. Shanghai with 23 million inhabitants, and Mexico City, Mumbai and Sao Paolo, each with 21 million inhabitants, followed by Osaka with just over 20 million people, round up the top five spots.
The most urbanized regions include Northern America, where 82 per cent of the population lives in urban areas, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean with 80 per cent, and 73 per cent in Europe.
While Africa and Asia remain mostly rural, both continents are soon expected to become more urban than rural. Currently, at least 40 per cent of the population in Africa and 48 per cent in Asia live in urban areas and this is expected to rise to 56 and 64 per cent, respectively, by 2050.
"Almost two decades ago, at Habitat II in Istanbul, the international community resolved to make the most of the opportunities presented by human settlements and preserve their diversity to promote solidarity," Mr Ban said.
"The world has changed dramatically since the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements. More than ever before, we understand the power of well-planned urbanization for development. But that is the key: planning – good, strong planning."
The Secretary-General of the Conference and Executive Director of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), Joan Clos, highlighted the scale and speed of urbanization, and the challenges presented by this.
"At the beginning of the 19th century, only 2 per cent of the world's population was urban. By the beginning of the 20th century, that percentage had increased to 10. At the beginning of our decade, the world's population living in urban areas had reached 50 per cent," Mr Clos told the group.
"This rapid urbanization of the planet Earth is an unprecedented challenge in the history of humanity. In forty years, four of every five people will live in towns and cities, and ours will be an urban planet.
"We can ascertain that urbanization has served well the purposes of growth, but the question is if it has served the purposes of 'sustainable development'. In the last 15 years, the UN family has engaged in the Millennium Development Goals, and now we altogether are reviewing their accomplishments on the way to the Post-2015 Development Agenda.
"The good news are in the reduction of absolute poverty and in some other indicators, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Specifically in our urban approach we have seen how the total number of slum dwellers has increased instead of decreased and how urban access to water and sanitation is the MDG goal lagging most behind.
"Since Habitat II, a new global awareness has emerged around Climate Change, and its effects on the sustainability of the Plant and its ecosystems. Here we are cognizant of the urbanization and the global emissions of Green House Gasses. 70% of the emissions are attributable to urbanization, 40% direct and 30% indirect."
Mr Clos told the group of the need to move away from fragmented views of sustainable urbanization to allow for the creation of a coherent view of this "important phenomenon and its role in sustainable development. We need cities and human settlements that are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable."
"The year 2016 should represent a turning point. Habitat III is a unique opportunity for governments and institutions around the world to engage in a New Urban Agenda that addresses the challenges of rapid urban growth and offer a new model of urbanization," Mr Clos said.