The summer Olympics in Rio are fading into memory, but the world’s attention did focus, however fleetingly, on urban conditions in the Brazilian city—the challenges of life in the favelas, the specter of crime both real and imagined, and the future uses of new infrastructure that made the games possible.
Now comes another international event that most people aren’t aware of, also in a South American city, that has an even greater mandate: to set an agenda for the world’s rapidly urbanizing metropolitan areas. There won’t be any medals awarded at Habitat III, the United Nations-led global cities summit set for Quito, Ecuador, in October. But organizers are hoping for a similar zeitgeist: calling attention to the urgent need to better plan the planet’s cities, particularly in the developing world.
This summit only happens every 20 years. Habitat I was held in Vancouver in 1976, followed by Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996. Those meetings established a basic framework for wrestling with the challenges facing the world’s cities, but never quite set an implementable set of policies or goals concerning urbanization. With Habitat III, the United Nations agency charged with guiding sustainable urban policies worldwide—the UN Human Settlements Programme, also known as UN-Habitat—recognizes this may be the last best chance to chart a course for the rest of the 21st century.
It’s hard to get the countries of the world to agree on anything. But organizers, led by UN-Habitat executive director Joan Clos, a former mayor of Barcelona, are hoping for the global urban policy equivalent of the COP-21 consensus on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, forged in Paris last December. The sense of urgency is palpable—that it’s now or never.
Why all the heavy breathing? As readers of CityLab well know, more than half the world’s population, currently some 7 billion souls, now lives in cities. By 2050, two-thirds of the planet’s projected population of nearly 10 billion are expected to inhabit metropolitan areas. The rapid increases now are mostly attributed to rural migrants streaming in, in search of a better life; future generations will be born in the metropolis. The most growth will occur predominantly in the developing world, in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
The problem is that on the whole, this extraordinary process of urbanization isn’t going particularly well. The UN estimates that nearly 1 billion people are currently living in informal settlements, or slums, without access to basic services such as sanitation and clean water. Two-thirds of rural migrants in Africa are believed to be moving straight into shantytowns.
Analysis of satellite data from a forthcoming revision of the Atlas of Urban Expansion, a project led by my employer, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, shows an incredible sprawl of slums, expanding outward at the far periphery of the urban core, from Accra to Dhaka. At current rates, this unplanned growth worldwide will eat up land equivalent to the entire country of India. This vast consumption of land comes coupled with a poor quality and character of growth. It’s inefficient, willy-nilly, bad for ecosystems, bad for food security, and above all, bad for billions of poor people. Such inhumane conditions, in many cases exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, will be a tinderbox, increasing instability for the entire world.
What’s been clear is that the cities accommodating this unprecedented population growth have been woefully unprepared. It’s a little like driving a bus with a fraction of the capacity for riders, with no schedule and no route. The conceit of Habitat III is to suggest that there must be a better way. Improving the future growth of the world’s cities entails basic urban planning, inclusive economic growth, and principles of sustainability, both fiscal and environmental. UN-Habitat seeks to help cities grow more sensibly and humanely, and give them the tools and policy frameworks to achieve that mission. Simple enough.
The summit is supposed to conclude with an agreed-upon document of policies, commitments, and principles for 21st century city-building, ambitiously called the New Urban Agenda. This manifesto contains high-level language recognizing the central role of cities in the planet’s future, detailed statements about gender equality, disaster risk reduction, the financing of basic services and infrastructure, and also phrases such as: “Leave no one behind, by ending poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including the eradication of extreme poverty.” They’re not kidding around.