UNITED Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson has called on global leaders to adapt to the demographic and cultural shift that is taking place in cities worldwide in order to make them economically viable, environmentally sustainable and socially vibrant.
"Urbanization can be a transformative force for the sustainable development goals by making cities and human settlements safe, resilient and sustainable," Mr Eliasson said in his address to the World Cities Summit in New York last week.
According to the UN, around 70 per cent of the world's population will live in urban areas in 2050. Cities are also where 80 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) is generated and they account for just over half of global greenhouse gas emissions and 75 per cent of global energy consumption.
Close to one billion of the world's urban dwellers still live in dire, even life-threatening, slum conditions – this figure is projected to rise to 1.6 billion by 2030, according to the UN. Some 2.5 billion people in the world lack access to improved sanitation, not least in urban areas.
"Rising inequality is today a universal concern and very much a reality in cities. Poverty is increasingly concentrated in urban areas," Mr Eliasson said.
There are also growing difficulties in integrating migrants, creating ethnically and socially fragmented areas of cities. Insensitive planning and inaccessible infrastructure and public services also build barriers which prevent women, persons with disabilities and senior citizens from benefitting from urban development.
"If cities join forces with governments, the private sector, civil society and urban planners, they can become the hubs for climate and development solutions," Mr Eliasson said, emphasising that well-planned and well-managed cities reduce poverty, protect citizens from climate impacts and stimulate sustainable economic growth.
But there is no one-size-fits-all approach. And that is why it is important for countries and cities to develop urban policies that capture their own unique circumstances and aspirations.
On sustainable urban planning and design, the Deputy Secretary-General said that human rights and the rule of law, not least strong institutions, must be promoted and protected. Equitable urban development and inclusive growth must be ensured. Civil society and democratic participation must be expanded. Environmental sustainability must be pursued.