Future of cities
The session was facilitated by Mr. Ben Malor, Chief Executive Producer, United Nations Radio, United States of America. Speakers were Ms. Inga Björk-Klevby, United Nations Assistant Secretary‑General, Deputy Executive Director, UN-Habitat; Professor John Friedmann, Honorary Professor in Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia, Canada; Dr. Janice Perlman, Founder and President, Megacities Project, United States of America; Dr. Xuemei Bai, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Japan; Ms. Kalpana Sharma, Mumbai Bureau Chief, the Hindu newspaper, India; Professor David Satterthwaite, Senior Fellow, Human Settlements, International Institute for Environment and Development, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; Ms. Rose Molokoane, Shack Dwellers International, South Africa; Mr. Shri Ajay Maken, Minister for Urban Development, India; and Mr. Clive Harridge, President, Town Planning Institute, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
A presentation was given of the main conclusions of the State of the World’s Cities Report 2006–2007. The panellists were then asked to give their main impressions on what they saw as the major trends and challenges facing cities in the twenty-first century.
The facilitator reminded participants that urbanization was an unstoppable trend, and according to many accounts, cities seem to be in trouble. What could cities do to cope? What were future cities likely to look like? Was the future all bleak or was there hope?
Further to the main findings of the State of the World Cities Report 2006–2007, Ms. Björk‑Klevby wondered whether the picture was one of hope or despair. The findings of the Report showed both positive and negative prospects. On the positive side, cities were contributing significantly to gross domestic product, and were centres of culture, human interaction, new thinking and innovations. If not properly managed, however, they could exacerbate deprivation, exclusion and inequality. The report showed inequality between regions: Asia currently had 50 per cent of the world slum population, while Africa had the highest slum growth rate and the worst slum conditions. Inequalities within cities were also rising.
The State of the World’s Cities Report 2006–2007 introduced a score card that ranked countries on their performance in slum upgrading and prevention. Countries that were doing well had several things in common, including long-term political commitment backed by appropriate policy and regulatory frameworks. They also combined slum upgrading programmes with economic growth, and were largely reliant on domestic resources. Such approaches linked the wealth of cities with improved well-being of their poorer residents.
Professor Friedmann stated that it was an impossible task to predict what future cities were likely to look like. The tendency was to get trapped in one of two extremes: utopia on the one hand, and doomsday scenarios on the other; avoiding the temptation to prophesy, he described a visit to a city in China, where, after observing the mix of new technology and ancient lifestyle, he had concluded that despite mushrooming modern architecture, increased traffic and new technology, the city was in essence the same as it had been for the last century. The point was that irrepressible human life would survive, adapt and ultimately triumph.
Dr. Perlman said that there would be no one city of the future; cities would continue to be rooted in their specificity. Indeed, people must all fight to preserve the diversity of cities. She noted that in some favelas of Rio de Janeiro, residents had been forcibly evicted and their dwellings replaced by apartment blocks for the middle class. In other areas, the favelas had been gradually transformed for the better by the residents, using their own resources. The residents’ prime concern was employment and reliable incomes. Most of those residents and their offspring felt that the democratic space had opened up over the years but that it had yet to lead to more participation by the poor. Similarly, while there had been improvements in the physical environment, access to livelihoods had worsened. Nevertheless, the majority still expected that their lives would improve in the future.
Dr. Bai, in response to a question as to the sustainability of the Chinese model of urbanization, established the Chinese context: 40 per cent of the population was urban, and in the past 25 years the number of cities had grown from 200 to 660. If present trends continued, there would be 900 urban centres in 20 years’ time. China had also become the manufacturing centre of the world, with negative environmental consequences, including diminishing farm land, polluted land as a result of dumping, and heavily polluted air and water. One result of that pollution had been a rise in the incidence of respiratory diseases and also lung cancer. The question to ask should be how to make the Chinese process more sustainable, and in that connection she suggested several actions: city decision-making needed to be more sensitive to environmental concerns; appropriate policies and monitoring mechanisms needed to be put in place; and cities must be made aware of their ecological footprints. The good news was that there was a generation of younger mayors who were more environmentally conscious, and an emerging civil society that was becoming more active.
Ms. Sharma spoke as a resident of an exciting and complex city, Mumbai, but wondered why Mumbai was being asked to emulate Shanghai: each city was unique in its history and context. What was needed was to study the strengths and survival mechanisms of each city so as to support and build on them. In Mumbai, there was a need to manage competing demands in a context of financial constraints. Currently, structures intended to attract global capital competed with those that could improve liveability for the residents. Similarly, a significant amount of resources had been put into improving access for private cars, yet car owners represented only 8 per cent of Mumbai’s population. Thus, planning appeared to be disconnected from reality. To ensure a more sustainable future, more affordable rental housing was needed; land should be freed from the “land mafias”; and there should be an increase in affordable and safe public transport.
Professor Satterthwaite said that there was increasing poverty largely because of government inaction. City governments continued to see the poor as a problem, and there was increasing polarization of city populations. More appropriate intervention models would be based on real partnerships between city governments and poor residents. Many federations of slum dwellers were forming savings groups and using their own resources to upgrade their houses and neighbourhoods. When city governments supported such networks, the scale of improvement increased exponentially. It was essential to give more space to such organizations, listen more effectively to what they said, and give them wider recognition. An indicator of success should be the quality of the relationship between city governments and associations of poor residents.
Ms. Molokoane wondered who the city belonged to: the poor were the majority, the most visible, the service providers, and yet the most marginalized. What the poor wanted were security of tenure and freedom from evictions. They wanted their existence and rights recognized, and they wanted to be included in development planning. She informed participants that she came also from an organization called “FED UP”, of people who were fed up of poverty and homelessness, were fed up of being subjects of other peoples’ agendas, but were not and would not be fed up of pressuring for their rights.
Mr. Maken highlighted the urgent need for more energy-efficient cities. That could be achieved through city planning as well as through the provision of adequate and energy-efficient city public transport. Slum upgrading must be implemented in situ and mixed land uses promoted so as to improve opportunities for livelihoods.
Mr. Harridge noted that there were two kinds of cities: the western, high-consumption, congested, environmentally unfriendly city, and the city of increasing slums in the developing world. Both types were unsustainable. In addition, cities were faced by climate change, urban terrorism and increasing violence. There was also strong resilience in city communities, however. Cities could be sustainable, but they needed to be planned in collaboration with their residents.
The session concluded that the problem was not population growth but unsustainable consumption patterns; that there was no model city of the future – each city must survive on the basis of its history and strengths; planning must be an agent of the people, not the State; and in most situations there were no either/or answers. While it was true that people and communities were resilient, sustainability must be planned for.