The third session of the World Urban opened on Monday with calls to improve the lives of the slum dwellers, and provide better financial and political support to local governments as our planet becomes irreversibly an urban world.
Setting the tone of the world's premier international meeting on the state of the world's growing cities, now home to half of humankind, Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada said in his opening keynote address:
"The foundations of healthy cities are found in healthy neighbourhoods. And the foundations of healthy neighbourhoods are found in healthy families. Healthy cities have voluntary neighbourhood-based groups at the very core of their political organization."
He said that fair taxes, the responsible exercise of personal freedom and a commitment to community and volunteerism were modest prices to pay for a country and cities that work. "While policy makers do influence the fates of their cities – for good and ill – the reality is that healthy cities are found in healthy neighbourhoods," he said.
Prime Minister Harper was one of 15 speakers at the opening plenary marking the 30th anniversary of the first Habitat Conference, held in Vancouver in 1976. He used his keynote address to speak of problems common to cities around the world – crime, drug abuse, family breakdown, homelessness, and poverty. He said Canada, even though its some cities were rated the best in the world, did not have "quick and inexpensive solutions".
"In our modern world, sadly, the most serious challenge of all is the threat of terrorism that casts an ominous shadow over all our cities throughout the world," he said. Canada, he added, felt the best way to make itself secure and safe was "by preserving and strengthening the cultural diversity that makes us strong".
The Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka, opened her remarks by asking delegates to observe a moment of silence for the late Canadian urban visionary, Ms. Jane Jacobs and the late Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri. Referring to Ms. Jacobs as "the mother of inclusive cities", the Executive Director said that Ms. Jacobs was an irrepressible champion of integrated and manageable urban communities and said that Mr. Hariri had played a crucial role in people-centred reconstruction of Lebanon, and for his work had been awarded with a Special Citation of the Habitat Scroll of Honour at the second session of the World Urban Forum in Barcelona.
Mrs. Tibaijuka said that the period lasting 100 years from 1950 to 2050 would be remembered by future generations as the one that led to the greatest social, cultural, economic and environmental transformation in history – that of the urbanization of humanity. She emphasized that because the future of the human species and of sustainability was tied to the city, the UN General Assembly had decided to establish the World Urban Forum as a means of engaging and learning from all social actors to further the Habitat Agenda and the Millennium Development Goals.
The Executive Director noted that when the United Nations was born in 1945, environmental and urban problems were not on the agenda of most governments and that it was not until the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm and the 1976 Habitat I conference in Vancouver that key actors came together to seek consensus on how to govern our cities more effectively and to pursue policies to make cities more sustainable.
In a message from the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan, delivered by Ms. Inga Bjork-Klevby, Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, the audience of nearly 4,000 people listened in silence as he outlined the darker side of rapid urbanisation in the world.
He said more than half the urban populations in the developing world now live in slums, with little or no access to decent housing, clean water, basic sanitation, regular jobs or steady income. Such was the despair, he said, that families were forced to choose whether to send their children to school or whether to use them to fetch water.
"In this interdependent world, opportunity and deprivation are interlinked," Mr. Annan said. He noted that the consequences of over-consumption and pollution, hunger and deprivation, crime and insecurity, knew no borders. If not handled well, they could generate intolerance, migration and even instability and extremism.
Mr. Enrique Ortiz of Habitat International Coalition noted that the first Habitat Conference was not only a vibrant and creative encounter, it also constituted a significant milestone in the raising global awareness of human settlements problems in both urban and rural areas, and the strategies to address them. He said that the Vancouver Declaration recognized that "housing and adequate services constitute a basic human right which imposes on governments the obligation to assure their obtainment by all inhabitants".
He said that the dream of facilitating adequate housing for all by the year 2000 was frustrated by the imposition of policies that viewed housing as a commodity rather than as a right, which made the city as the sphere of financial and real estate speculation. This resulted in growing numbers of homeless and inadequately housed people. These policies led to the prioritization of housing markets and privatization of basic services.
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