Author: Petra Hurtado
Today, more than half of the world’s population is living in cities and urban areas (United Nations World Urbanization Prospects). This number is predicted to increase to over two thirds by 2050. Additionally, cities are the main drivers of the global economy, “generating more than 80% of the global GDP, while helping hundreds of millions lift themselves out of extreme poverty” (World Bank).
With more and more people living in cities, the variety of activities cities offer is growing as well. Cities are not just the hubs for trade and political intellect anymore. Cities return to be the places where people live, work, study, and play.
During the industrial revolution, industry and manufacturing made cities dirty and unhealthy places that had to deal with serious health concerns derived from contaminated water and air pollution on account of a lack of standards and planning that intermixed housing, factories, and city services. With the mass production of the automobile in the twentieth century, people were able to “solve this problem by fleeing the city”, as Henry Ford put it, and move into suburban, homogeneous areas. Urban planners started to separate residential areas from commercial and industrial areas, and the car enabled us to move from one area to another. This development resulted in many issues urban planners have to deal with today such as urban sprawl, traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, and increased energy consumption.
Looking at the current trends of re-urbanization and the demand for different uses to move closer together again, uses that had previously moved out of the city are coming back into urban areas in a more modernized and clean shape of form. Industry is not dirty anymore and with the digitalization and automation of manufacturing, more and more manufacturers are moving back to the city to be close to a high-quality work force. However, as city demands grow, not only are uses that were once urban coming back, rural activities that have never taken place in city environments are suddenly becoming urban as in the movement towards urban agriculture.
Planners traditionally have separated different uses from each other to make cities more livable and healthier places. Today, concerns of climate change, resource depletion, and public health, particularly obesity, cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, force us to consider new concepts in spatial and land use planning, building design, infrastructure, and service provision. New urban configurations can facilitate the connectivity and proximity of urban systems, services, and neighborhoods, so they can be reached on foot or by public transit, making cities more livable as well as healthy and sustainable. By implementing a mix of uses, cities become more walkable, denser, and therefore more resource-efficient. At the same time, bringing nature into the city and preserving existing urban ecosystems coupled with introducing new technologies, cities can avoid the problems faced in the past and create a healthy and sustainable mixed- use live-work-play quality of life.
However, with the urbanization of the world and the majority of human activities taking place in cities, cities are also the places that are responsible for and mostly affected by climate change, social inequalities, and global health issues. Cities and urban areas are the main contributors to climate change with over two thirds of the world’s energy being consumed in cities and over 70% of global CO2 emissions resulting from urban life (C40). In addition, “as cities grow, so does their exposure and vulnerability to natural disasters. With over 90% of all urban centers located in coastal areas, cities are facing increasing risks from devastating hurricanes, floods, and other natural hazards that are becoming more frequent, intense, and severe due to climate change. […] By 2030, climate change and natural disasters may cost cities worldwide $314 billion each year, and push 77 million more urban residents into poverty.” (World Bank)
Furthermore, the current refugee crisis is an urban crisis as well with the majority of forcibly displaced people migrating to cities in the hope for a better life. “This pattern is particularly evident in the already highly urbanised MENA region, where an estimated 80 to 90 percent of displaced live in towns and cities which is significantly above the global average of 60 percent. The sudden and rapid influx of forcibly displaced into towns and cities leads to overcrowding and an increased demand for urban services, land, jobs and housing.” (Cities Today)
With more and more people living in cities, global issues are having their main impacts on the local level, forcing local governments and urban planners into the position of suddenly having to solve global problems, previously the onus of national governments.
Last week, the ninth World Urban Forum (WUF9), the world’s premier conference on cities convened by UN-Habitat, took place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Over 20,000 urban actors, including national governments, subnational and local governments, civil society, private sectors, and academia, from 165 countries discussed the implementation of the New Urban Agenda adopted during the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (UN-Habitat III) in Quito, Ecuador in 2016. With the theme “Cities 2030, Cities for All: Implementing the New Urban Agenda”, the focus was placed on the New Urban Agenda as a tool and accelerator for achieving the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals.
The New Urban Agenda is a “roadmap for building cities that can serve as engines of prosperity and centres of cultural and social well-being while protecting the environment. The Agenda also provides guidance for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and provides the underpinning for actions to address climate change.” (United Nations) With the current global urbanization trends, the New Urban Agenda and its implementation appears to be the main tool for sustainable development and an important global guidance to solve the challenges we are facing in the world today. But what does that mean for future urban development? Who are the urban stakeholders who are working on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda? Are local governments and urban planners going to save the world?
As recently reported in the Washington Post, “cities have become global actors. […] Mayors are now working across municipal and even national borders to solve some of the most pressing global challenges.” Numerous organizations such as ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, 100 Resilient Cities, the Global Covenant of Mayors, and about 200 other city networks are fostering collaboration and knowledge sharing between cities to tackle current and future challenges. The slogan “think global, act local” couldn’t be more timely, as subnational governments come together to discuss global issues while finding locally adaptable and implementable solutions.
The fact that cities have started to chart their own paths, trying to address the global impacts of climate change on a local level in collaboration with global peers rather than with their national governments became especially obvious last year when the U.S. national government withdrew from the Paris Agreement. With the withdrawal from this global pact against climate change, U.S. mayors firmly committed to the continuation of their work towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, joining the “We Are Still In” campaign and signing the Chicago Charter.
National governments have to understand that we are entering a new urban area, where the big decisions are made in and by cities. As stated in the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on Cities 2030, released during WUF9, the majority of problems and crises today originate in cities and can best be solved in cities. Problems may arise in a global context, but their solutions have to be understood and implemented in a local context. Inclusive planning approaches are needed to “facilitate social cohesion and create economic opportunities”. The Declaration furthermore mentions the positive impact new technologies may have on problem solving, using open and accessible data, also noting that appropriate governance is imperative for equal and just implementation.
Local governments and urban planners are not just the link between national strategies and local action anymore; but they are the ones who create new strategies in order to solve global problems where they originate. Additionally, their local knowledge on what can be done where and how in their territory and their understanding of the needs of the people who live, work, and play in their constituencies enable them to solve these issues with much more accuracy and to the point. Local problem solving is less about politics and more about getting things done.
Cities have laid their organizational base for this transition, gaining more and more attention on the global stage while addressing local issues. Therefore, it is the national governments’ responsibility now to support this movement with the right policies and needed financing mechanisms. Local governments and their urban planners may have the technical ability to solve global issues on local levels, and public-private-partnerships may be used to fund some of the needed investments. However, cities will still need the support from national governments, acknowledging that cities are the most important decision makers in a world where the majority of the population lives in urban areas. Failure of doing so will not just affect local and national interests; it will have a global impact that may be irreversible.