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Sustainable development hinges on fate of world’s cities

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The future of sustainable development will hinge on the fate of cities, officials told a special meeting of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on Thursday, stressing that the more than half of the world’s population currently live in urban environments, a number likely to rise to nearly 70 per cent by 2050.
“The actions we take now must lead us to…a new social integration based on the principles of prosperity, transformation, adaptation, equity and respect for human rights,” said Martha Delgado, President of the UN-Habitat Assembly.

Highlighting urbanization as one of today’s great megatrends, she joined others in calling for resilient, sustainable “smart cities” that are more inclusively governed and better prepared to navigate future shocks and crises.

New Urban Agenda

Thursday’s special meeting on Sustainable Urbanization and the Implementation of the New Urban Agenda will complement a similar High-Level meeting of the General Assembly, on 28 April.

Both sessions are designed to explore how the UN system can better support countries in implementing the New Urban Agenda – a landmark plan for the world’s urban spaces, which was adopted in 2016 at the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development.

The Agenda put forward standards and commitments for the planning, construction, development, management and improvement of urban areas.

It also articulated a shared vision for cities as just, safe, healthy, accessible and affordable places where all inhabitants are able to live without discrimination.

COVID-19 disparities

Opening Thursday’s meeting, ECOSOC President Collen Vixen Kelapile urged participants to examine urban issues through the lens of inequality, especially given the stark disparities illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Sustainable development will hinge on how we manage urbanization,” he said, adding that current discussions should be framed in the context of responding to COVID-19 response and the climate crisis.

Noting that 1.2 billion people in the global South currently live in informal settlements and slums, Mr. Kelapile reminded that they have long struggled to prevent disease transmissions, now including COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in the global North, dependence on welfare, where available, increased manifold during the pandemic and many people entered the ranks of the homeless. 

In response, cities have deployed creative actions and provided services in underserved areas, while new urban models are beginning to pay more attention to pedestrians and mixed land uses.

Reclamation, inclusivity, greening

UN-Habitat chief Maimunah Mohd Sharif agreed that the world’s cities have been absorbing much of COVID’ s socioeconomic impact.

However, that has often resulted in closer cooperation between national and local governments, which, in turn, has led to greater reclamation, greening and inclusive use of public space. 

Spotlighting a fresh opportunity to build on those partnerships, she said: “We can provide basic services in a more equitable manner, reduce commuting through tele-work and reduce carbon emissions by prudent use of energy.”

Upgrading slums and addressing the housing affordability crisis remain the highest priorities for countries.

Meanwhile, as cities have been forced to augment emergency social spending during the pandemic, she warned that Agenda implementation continues to be impeded by inadequate financing, further crippled by dramatic expenditure reductions.

COVID-19 demonstrated that real value comes from providing affordable service, rather than extracting profit, she added.

UN Photo/Manuel Elías

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) convenes a special meeting on Sustainable Urbanization and the Implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

Accelerating progress

“Achieving the New Urban Agenda’s goals will accelerate our progress on human welfare and security globally,” said General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid.

He joined other speakers in emphasizing that, when properly managed, cities are among humanity’s most sustainable living environments.

On the climate front, adhering to the Agenda will help keep alive the goal of limiting planetary warming to 1.5°C.

Cities ‘connect the dots’

Echoing those points, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said the Agenda also includes measures to secure land tenure, promote affordable housing, enhance mobility and provide services that are accessible to all.

“Cities can spearhead innovations to bridge the inequalities gaps, deliver climate action and ensure a green and inclusive COVID-19 recovery,” she said.

The deputy UN chief added that urban spaces “connect the dots” on many of today’s global challenges.

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