Towards a new urban agenda

With more than half of humankind living in cities and the number of urban residents growing by nearly 73 million every year, it is here that our future will be decided. We need cities and human settlements that are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. We are failing in how we plan, build and manage our cities. Subsequently, we are failing to create a sustainable future for ourselves and our next generations.

The fact that the majority of the world’s population now lives in urban areas has a significance that extends far beyond its quantitative dimension. It means that a much more significant role is now played by the galvanising power of proximity, and also by the economies of agglomeration – which together constitute the basis of the transformative power of urbanisation. The globalisation of economic relations has also brought about the emergence of new, more specialised functions at different hierarchical levels, from megacities to small villages, in an immense urban web interconnected by new information and communication technologies.

It is also clear that urban residents now work, think and act in ways that are different from the past – ways that are based on what might be termed an “urban mindset”. Urbanisation is driving a slow but persistent process of cultural change. This has also caused the living environment to change from a small-scale agriculture-oriented setting to a place of mass production, consumption and service. Urban spaces have also changed in their configuration and functionality, their scale and density and in the makeup of their social, cultural and ethnic groups.

Urban centres attract investment and create wealth. They enhance social development and harness human and technological resources, resulting in clear gains in productivity and competitiveness. Indeed, cities have become the repositories of knowledge and are often agents of social, political and economic change. At the same time, however, when not properly designed and managed, cities can pay the high price of negative externalities, such as congestion, contamination and wide-spread inequality.

Rapid urbanisation in the 21st century has posed huge challenges in all areas of the planet. Paradoxically, the most complex challenges are to be found in the developed world. The model of urban growth in the second half of the last century has led to a lower density in cities and a significant increase in the formation of suburbs, with a wide range of unexpected effects. The most relevant of these is arguably the increased cost of living in the urban environment, which in turn generates social tensions, urban fragmentation and unrest, and in certain developed countries leads to social problems in some neighbourhoods.

Demographic stagnation in the developed countries is leading to an ageing urban population, all the more evident in countries that resist immigration. There are an abundance of examples reflecting the growing difficulties impeding urban spaces from exercising their role in integrating social diversity, for instance, gated communities, a lack of public space and monofunctional districts

Lastly, we must not forget that the urbanisation process also has an essentially political component. Often it is not financial constraints that impede the needed transformation of a city, but the impossibility of finding agreement between the various stakeholders. It is in this context that urban design, governance and land legislation play a key role. What counts here is helping to build community institutions and mechanisms capable of circumventing the disagreements, misunderstandings and local conflicts that get in the way of the kind of urbanisation that generates prosperity. No urban transformation is possible without consensus.

The year 2016 – with the celebration of the third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) – should represent a turning point in the debate on the future of our cities. 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 offers a new model of urbanisation.

Over the next thirty years, the urban population of the world will increase by at least 2.5 billion people. Enormous financial flows will have to be mobilised for investment in construction, energy, public transport and other aspects of the urbanisation process. Investment in cities during this period will exceed the total sum of all expenditure on urbanisation over the entire history of humankind. The policy decisions which will guide this enormous economic effort must take account of all the successful experiences of urban transformation in recent years. The objective is clear: to shape good cities, those in which the inhabitants live together in density and diversity, where the economies of agglomeration are able to generate prosperity and where the public spaces which guarantee equality and justice are respected and inspire respect.

Good cities do not come about by accident. The prerequisites for a good city are broad community consensus, long-standing political determination and sound urban planning which, over the course of time, engender urban environments that can provide wellbeing and security to their inhabitants, guarantee the supply of water, energy and food, and promote a compact and diverse urban structure in which innovation, trade and economic prosperity are encouraged. It definitively protects that urban communal space in which individual rights and opportunities are most respected. Results like these have never been achieved through spontaneous urbanisation, nor by the adoption of wrong-sighted decisions. The well-made city is not only difficult to achieve but also difficult to maintain.

In tackling the problem of sustainable urbanisation, a three-pronged approach is needed, covering the areas of urban regulations, urban planning and urban finance. If the world’s cities are to move from an unsustainable to a sustainable urban future, it is essential to identify and to coordinate efficient and implementable measures in each of those three areas.

Good governance prevents conflict, facilitates stability, helps cities to adapt to future challenges and is critical for their performance in an increasingly competitive world. Governance is the enabling environment that requires adequate legal frameworks, efficient political, managerial and administrative processes, as well as mechanisms, guidelines and tools to enable the local government to respond to the needs of the citizen. Local governments have the proximity to translate the principles of good urban governance into effectively managing, governing and developing a city, and ensuring equitable access to citizenship. In contexts of fragility and conflict, local governments also have the potential to build positive state-society relations and deliver services in situations where national institutions remain weak.

The new complexities of the cities of today require a constant and fluid dialogue between institutions, on one side, and between people and institutions, on the other. Relations with non-state actors are increasingly important to ensure a real participatory process and stronger inclusion of all in city decision-making. The public should be able to hold institutions accountable for the provision of basic services for all. To do this, people need information about decisions taken by local councils and how public money is spent. There is an increasing need for accountability and transparency measures to ensure institutional effectiveness and better service delivery. On the other hand, more local governments are engaging in public-private partnerships (PPP) to provide for public services. However, some may not have the capacity to properly negotiate PPP arrangements or to follow-up with implementation during the agreed time. The efficiency of service provision rests on how well the procurement process is conducted, to ensure that the right service provider is awarded the contract and that those contracts are cost-effective, and beneficial both for the private partner and for the citizenry as a whole.

Improved service delivery, well-functioning infrastructure and sustainment of the economic dynamism of any city are highly dependent on governance relations and management systems at the local level. When operations among communities and neighbourhoods, or the private and public sectors fail to harness the full potential of each, then the overall functioning of the city suffers. Similarly, when relations between the local authority and other key stakeholders are lacking in participation, accountability, transparency as well as overall civic engagement, the city will not perform optimally.

In terms of the everyday functioning of a municipal authority, organisational systems and institutional arrangements play a critical role in enabling the municipality to perform its roles. The manner in which programmes are planned, tasks are organised, supervision is executed, processes are coordinated, reporting is done and budgeting is undertaken are critical to the functioning of a municipal authority. Indeed, livable and prosperous cities are supported by good local institutions, designed according to local needs and financial possibilities. The prevalence of the appropriate checks and balances, with clear protocols, must underlie a sound management system.

There is great potential for success, and we must act accordingly – with ambition. The implementation of the New Urban Agenda will range across the entire process of urbanisation that continues to sweep the global community, encompassing all human settlements in all parts of the world. Not only can we make slums history and address long-standing issues of economic depression and social marginalisation, but we can also tackle urban poverty and inequity and new forms of discrimination. Good governance and the rule of law at the national and subnational levels are essential for the achievement of those objectives, in order for us to move to a more sustainable model of urbanisation. If urbanisation is to be truly inclusive and sustainable, participatory mechanisms and integrated human settlement planning and management practices are crucial.

Joan Clos is United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN-Habitat.