INTERVIEW: UN Habitat executive director on the future of cities

With the ink just dried on last year’s historic UN agreements on climate change and sustainable development, the focus this year shifts to cities – which is where the real action on making sustainability a reality will play out. With about half of the world’s population, 80% of global GDP and 70% of greenhouse gases, cities are without a doubt the action arm of sustainable development.

The Habitat III conference takes place in Quito, Ecuador this October, and the world’s governments will agree a new urban agenda that will provide a road map for urban sustainability. These conferences only happen every 20 years (the first was in Vancouver in 1976 and the second in Istanbul in 1996). Interview with Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN Habitat.

What are the goals of UN Habitat conferences?

The objective of Habitat conferences has been to review the state of urbanization and propose ideas and strategies to manage it. In 1976 the attention was on small human settlements and how to retain population in rural areas. The following period, however, saw 1.5 billion people moving to cities and this presented new challenges, not least inclusiveness and the right of participation in city processes. Then the relationship between cities and climate change emerged as a topic. Now it is clear that a new paradigm is forming on sustainable urbanization and this has political, economic and environmental aspects. The key principle of Habitat III will be how cities can contribute to sustainable development.

What can we expect from Habitat III?

We expect the elaboration of a new urban agenda, with strategies for member states and local authorities to tackle urbanization. These will cover three main areas: legislation with rules and regulations, spatial planning and design, and finance. These will be monitored through the Agenda 2030 [the Sustainable Development Goals] and additional tools that will be discussed at the conference.

The fastest growing cities today are in Africa and Asia, while many cities in developed countries are shrinking. Is it possible to develop a global agenda that is relevant to all?

Yes, it is. We are working on a global agenda because there are common problems and shared principles. There is a demographic challenge, which affects in different ways cities in developing and developed countries. There is an environmental challenge, related especially to climate change. There is the new phenomenon of urban poverty with the common issue of affordability. The aim is to set principles that govern compact human communities across the globe.

Could you talk a bit about ‘smart cities’? The concept has drawn criticism for not focusing enough on people. Do you agree?

The concept of smart cities has a strong focus on technology. Technology adapts to urbanization in the first place, then generates long-term transformations and urban societies adhere to these advances. We have seen in the past how societies have adapted to cars, gas, the telephone and the optic fiber for example. So technology is part of the urbanization process, but urbanization has its own tempo and involves a broader range of aspects. Social culture, with the evolution of the family for instance, has to be understood properly in cities’ design, otherwise it is impossible to plan for long-term success.

What about mega-cities? Is there a threshold at which the positive scaling effects for sustainability of a city become a liability?

Most studies show that efficiencies increase with cities’ size, but there hasn’t been a serious analysis on size decrease. However, the correlation (with sustainability indicators, ed. note) is stronger with GDP, Gini coefficient and similar indicators. We have huge cities like Tokyo that perform very well and smaller cities that are very inefficient. It is not just about the size, but regulation, culture and many other elements that are not easily measured.

Urbanization was included in the Millennium Development Goal on environmental sustainability and became a goal of its own in the SDGs – to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. How will Habitat III contribute to this objective?

In the MDGs urbanization was approached from the problem space, looking at sectoral deficiencies such as the lack of water and sanitation. Now, for the first time, discussion has moved from why our model of urbanization is not delivering the quality and quantity of prosperity we expect to how it should. This more strategic approach will be the focus of Habitat III. As well as legislation, planning and design, we will look at the financial pillar. What are the costs and the investments needed and what is the financial plan to address urbanization properly? This is a substantial part of the issue and so far it has been overlooked.

What are the links between Habitat III and the Paris climate agreement?

The environmental aspect of sustainable urbanization relates particularly to COP21, as it concerns greenhouse gas emissions, disaster avoidance and adaptation. But the fact that emissions are related to urbanization does not mean that the solution is in the city alone. It is mainly about changing the matrix of primary energy sources. Of course more can be done in improving the quality of buildings, the design, the transportation, but urbanization calls for a rapid implementation of the climate agreement as cities face huge adaptation challenges and do not have the means for the transformation. In a way, urbanization is a doctor, but also a patient. Habitat III will localize and deepen this issue, but in this area we do not need more information, we only have to start making the right decisions on energy.

The Habitat process is not binding, so why should people outside the UN system care about this event?

We now have 3.5 billion people living in cities and this figure is expected to double by 2050. This will mean a major change of life for many. The future of the majority of people on the planet should be a good reason to get interested in the process and to fight for proper urbanization.

This article was originally published on Road to Paris, the news site of the International Council for Science (ICSU), and on the blog of the World Economic Forum. Photo: Dr. Joan Clos, Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. Credit: Thomas Henrikson/SIWI, photo available via Wikimedia Commons.