The world’s cities are expanding, booming—and could become fit to burst.
Currently, cities cover just two per cent of the earth’s land surface yet are home to more than half of the world’s population. And, according to United Nations forecasts, around 68 per cent of us will live in urban areas by 2050. By then, it’s predicted, ten per cent of land will be taken up by urban areas, while the number of “megacities”—with a population of ten million or more—will increase from 29 to between 41 and 53.
Yale University breaks down the figures further, suggesting the urban population will grow by 2.5 billion between now and 2050. That’s 170,000 moving to towns and cities every day.
The reasons why people are moving are complex and layered. Grayline suggests it could, at least in part, be due to urban areas increasingly becoming industry-specific hubs, while agricultural innovation has led to fewer employment opportunities in rural areas.
To ensure this urban boom doesn’t cause an implosion, it needs to be carefully managed and steered in a positive direction.
What is the New Urban Agenda?
To address this rapid urbanisation, UN member states gathered for the October 2016 Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador to set out a best-practice model for sustainable cities.
Put simply, there will be more of us than ever before—and the vast majority of us will be cramming into cities. This brings the potential to exacerbate overcrowding, pollution, social and economic inequality, and the drain of natural resources.
The New Urban Agenda announced at the conference seeks to pre-empt these issues and help cities become agents of positive change, rather than a scourge on the environment. According to a report on the UN’s news site, the agenda “recognised the power of cities and towns... to be the engine for sustainable growth in the future”.
The result of discussion between mayors, local authorities, community groups and urban planners, the document is an extension of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a set of international development goals adopted by UN member states in 2015. Both seek to tackle global challenges including poverty, hunger, sustainability and education. The New Urban Agenda differentiates in that it focuses purely on towns and cities and recognises that urbanisation can, and should, be the driving force for sustainable development.
Cities of the Future
The overarching aim of the agenda is to “integrate all facets of sustainable development to promote equity, welfare and shared prosperity”. Commitments from UN member states include international development assistance to help countries improve access to housing and shelter.
According to the Habitat III website: “Urbanisation and development are inextricably linked, and it is necessary to find a way of ensuring the sustainability of growth.” It describes the move to cities as “a driving force as well as a source of development with the power to change and improve lives”.
Future cities driven by new technology and intelligent use of data are seen as key to creating sustainable, liveable and egalitarian urban spaces. The agenda also covers solutions to help developing countries to urbanise successfully and with minimal environmental and human impact. This includes committing to the creation of inclusive public spaces, for example, and ensuring that expansion doesn’t happen at the expense of existing ecosystems and communities.
Habitat III Secretary General, Joan Clos, addressed the closing press conference: “The New Urban Agenda...aims to pave the way towards making cities and human settlements more inclusive, ensuring that everyone can benefit from urbanisation, and paying particular attention to those in vulnerable situations.
Leaders signing up to the agenda—which Clos described as “a common roadmap for the 20 years to come”—made broad commitments to tackle air pollution, increase use of renewable energy, and provide greener public transport.
Making Change Happen
An integrated approach will be the key to whether the world’s cities can truly drive a greener, more sustainable future. That will mean local and national authorities, research centres and think-tanks all working together.
The 167 countries that adopted the agenda may also need to offer firm commitments to make it a reality. So far, the biggest pledges have come from academic institutions and nonprofits including Habitat for Humanity, whose $15 million Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter aims to provide improved access to housing. The international nonprofit also launched a New Urban Approach to promote sustainable cities.
Speaking at the conference, Clos urged “sub-national and local governments to use the New Urban Agenda as a key instrument for planning and policy development for sustainable urbanisation”. “If we don’t implement, it’s going to be useless,” he added.
By the time the Habitat IV conference takes place, in 2036, it should be much clearer whether urbanisation will make a sustainable future more—or less—likely.