UN-HABITAT's Executive Director, Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka, on Monday joined members of the Dutch government and the Mayor of the Hague, Mr. Wim Deetman for the 2007 celebration of World Habitat Day.
"World Habitat Day is the most important date on our international calendar. It is our occasion to remind the world, our leaders and our citizens, that the first Monday every October is an occasion to be ever alert and vigilant to the great urban changes sweeping our planet," Mrs. Tibaijuka said in a keynote address an audience of several hundred people gathered in the ornate surroundings of the Knights' Hall in the heart of the city's historical centre.
Mrs. Tibaijuka was at pains to thank the Dutch government for strongly supporting for the agency over the years. In just one example, she cited Dutch financial support to the UN-HABITAT's Lake Victoria Water and Sanitation Programme in East Africa.
"The subject that brings us here today, is something that touches us all. Crime and fear of crime is growing unacceptably fast at a time half of humanity is now living in towns and cities" Mrs. Tibaijuka said. "There is no doubt too, that today most crime and violence occurs in cities. And this is the reason, we decided to chose the theme, A safe city is a just city, to mark the occasion of World habitat Day this year."
South Africa's Minister of Housing, Ms. Lindiwe Sisulu, who joined her at the podium said: "It is in moments like this that we gather to ask the awkward questions about our joint future. We have no doubt that by now, our future is an urban future. We know that for most of humankind, it will be the only future."
The Dutch government then engaged Mrs. Tibaijuka and Ms. Sisulu in a wide-ranging debate on urban problems and solutions with Mr. Bert Koenders, Minister for Development Cooperation, and Ms. Ella Vogelaar, the Minister for Housing, Communities and Integration.
The session was chaired by Jan Pronk, former Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General in Sudan and Minister in the Dutch Government. He started the debate by asking them the question: "Is the fact that we now have more people living in cities than ever before a problem – or an opportunity?"
Mr. Koenders immediately responded by citing the many opportunities, especially those that would help lift women out of urban poverty. Recalling a visit to Africa in recent days, he said growing urbanisation was also fraught with risks ranging from insecurity to tenure, to health problems, especially the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Mrs. Tibaijuka, speaking of what she called "premature urbanisation" in Africa, said most people were moving into towns and cities "because they expect life will be better". Until the end of white rule in South Africa, Ms. Sisulu said people had been forcibly kept out of the country's cities.
"A few years ago, 13 to be exact, my country attained democracy," Ms.Sisulu said. "We emerged from a situation that could not technically be termed a war, but whose impact was as devastating as a war situation. Within a period of five years of normality, the number of previously displaced people and previously deprived people requiring housing in the urban areas was greater than that affected by lack of shelter after World War II in Europe."
Ms. Vogelaar gave examples of how Dutch cities were seeking to be as inclusive as a possible – especially by helping new immigrants learn Dutch, get to grips with the ways of the country and find employment and housing opportunities.
The plenary session on Monday continued with a presentation of UN-HABITAT's latest biennial Global Report on Human Settlements by Dr. Naison Mutizwa-Mangiza, a special discussion on the restitution of land and housing rights for returning refugees by Mr. Scott Leckie, Founder of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, and a discussion on post-conflict reconstruction led by Mayor Deetman.
In keeping with a tradition dating back to 1989, Mrs. Tibaijuka presented the UN-HABITAT 2007 Scroll of Honour Awards in acknowledgement of seven initiatives from around the world which have made outstanding contributions in various fields such as shelter provision, highlighting the plight of the homeless, leadership in post conflict reconstruction, and developing and improving the human settlements and the quality. The Scroll is the most prestigious human settlements award in the world.
Joining her to confer a separate set of awards, was Ms. Diane Diacon, Director of the Building and Social Housing Foundation of the United Kingdom who presented the World Habitat Awards. Established in 1985 by the Building and Social Housing Foundation as part of its contribution to the United Nations International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, the foundation presents two £10,000 prizes annually on World Habitat Day for projects from the global north as well as the south that provide practical and innovative solutions to current housing needs and problems.
Both UN-HABITAT and the Foundation announced that their awards would be presented at the United Nations global celebration of World Habitat Day in The Hague, the Netherlands on Monday 1st October and in Monterrey, Mexico on Friday 5th October. Experts on urban issues from around the world continued the debate on Tuesday as Mrs. Tibaijuka departed for Monterrey.
The Building and Social Housing Foundation awards this year went to the ZukunftsWerkStadt Leinefelde, in Germany. The Leinefelde-Worbis municipality in the former East Germany had effectively engaged with the challenges of depopulation, a failing economy and large numbers of empty and deteriorating housing stock through an innovative and integrated, participatory approach. "New job opportunities have been created, the urban infrastructure and living environment have been significantly upgraded, and over 2,500 apartments have been refurbished to high environmental standards," Ms. Diacon said.
The other award went to the Ecomaterials in Social Housing Projects in Cuba. Ms. Diacon said, "t his project has developed and transferred a range of innovative and environmentally sustainable building materials which can be manufactured locally in small workshops and which are suitable for both rural and urban areas". It had also created new job opportunities. An estimated 2,300 houses in the Villa Clara province, and over 5,000 nationwide, have been built or renovated using ecomaterials.