Urban development

Sustainable urban development: ‘business as usual is not an option’


Delegates at the 9th World Urban Forum were urged to see urbanisation, migration, and diversity as realities to be managed, not problems to be solved.


Empowering women and young people and engaging local citizens and grassroots organisations in city planning are essential if global urban development is to be sustainable, attendees at the 9th World Urban Forum (WUF9) were told.

There also needs to be innovation, transparency, and efficiency in governance, and courageous political leadership, participants heard.

WUF9, which took place in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, was held under the banner “Cities 2030, Cities for All”.

The breadth of the debate over the seven days of the forum was impressive. The discussions covered aspects of urban life and development that ranged from migration and informal settlements to living as a disabled or older person, and matters of peace and security.

Combating climate change, civic engagement, building affordable housing, the management of natural resources and ecosystems in and around urban areas, the role of the evangelical community, and technological innovation were just some of the myriad other issues tackled in the debates.

There were major plenaries and high-level roundtables along with side, networking, and training events.

There were separate assemblies focused on women, youth, grassroots, children, business, and local government, as well as a large exhibition area, and events at the Urban Village in the KL city centre, where there was a micro-home that people could visit.

The village was set up by a team from the urban regeneration organisation Think City, who also organised presentations and documentary screenings, installed sculptures, and converted several street-level car parks into “parklets” with seating and an edible garden.

The organisation Dialogue in the Dark presented “My Urban Life in the Dark”, an experiential environment that enabled visitors to see and understand the world from the perspective of those without sight.

The WUF is a non-legislative, biennial event convened by the United Nations agency for human settlements, UN-Habitat.

This year’s focus was on implementation of the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda, which was adopted in October 2016 at the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development – Habitat III, which took place in Quito, Ecuador.

The UN says the new agenda “sets a new global standard for sustainable urban development, and will help us rethink how we plan, manage, and live in cities”.

The agenda is described as a roadmap for building cities “that can serve as engines of prosperity and centres of cultural and social well-being while protecting the environment”.

It also provides guidance for achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and includes a commitment to tackle climate change.

More than 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities and other urban areas and at least one billion people live in slums. The world’s urban population is expected almost to double in the next forty years, and, by 2030, more than half of all urban dwellers will be teenagers.

In her speech at the WUF9 closing ceremony, the new executive director of UN-Habitat, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, said that, 15 months after the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, the path was promising, but there was much more to do.

“Our journeys this week were all different, but our destination is the same: inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable human settlement for all.”[tweetquote]

All stakeholders needed to work together, Sharif said. “I am calling on all of us to walk out talk.” Public, private, and people partnership, she said, was the key to success.

“Globally, investment in sustainable urbanisation is still low in the crucial areas of urban infrastructure, housing, and services. We must improve the environment for sustainable private investments.”[tweetquote]

Sharif told attendees that, at WUF9, 49 percent of participants were women and 41 percent were aged under 32.

Inclusion was a major theme at WUF9, which was attended by nearly 23,000 people from 165 countries and was the most attended and diverse World Urban Forum to date. The resounding message was that no one and no place should be left behind.

Artist John Quigley organised a drone photography event at KL’s Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) during the forum. About five hundred participants, who included blind and deaf people and people in wheelchairs, spelled out “Cities for All”, and also “Inclusion” in braille and “I love you” in sign language.

The president of the non-profit, educational organisation World ENABLED, Victor Pineda, opened the event, stating how important it was for every member of society to be included in all urban development.

Migration as a force for good

The director-general of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), William Lacy Swing, said in his speech during the WUF9 closing ceremony: “Urbanisation, migration, and diversity are not problems to be solved. They are human realities that we need to learn to manage.”

Globally, three million people are moving to cities every week, Lacy Swing pointed out.

Lacy Swing said that migration was a global phenomenon and would be a mega-trend for the rest of this century. One out of every seven people in the world is a migrant, Lacy Swing told forum attendees.

“We live in a world on the move. There are more people in movement today than at any other time in recorded history.”[tweetquote]

A total of 258 million people were crossing borders, Lacy Swing said, and there were about 750 million internal migrants.

Most migrants were moving in a very natural and safe manner, Lacy Swing said. “However, we have the greatest number of forced migrants since the Second World War … 23 million refugees and about 43 million displaced persons being forced to move for other reasons.”

The drivers of this migration were very obvious, Lacy Swing said. There were at least ten armed conflicts from Africa to the Himalayas that had no hope of resolution in the short to medium term.

There were also the demographic divergences between the global north and south. “The median age in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, is 14. The median age in Europe is 47.”

The New Urban Agenda recognises migration as a major force for good in the world if it is managed properly, Lacy Swing said.

Three and a half percent of the world’s population are migrants, he added, but they are producing nine percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is four per cent more than they would have produced if they had stayed at home.

“All of our societies will become inexorably more multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-religious, so we need to start preparing for that,” Lacy Swing told his audience.

“Unfortunately there is very little political courage, very little political leadership, on the question of managing diversity.”[tweetquote]

The need for urgent action

Britain’s Prince Charles sent a video message to the forum, in which he said that decisive action needed to be taken if there was to be any hope of achieving the critical Sustainable Development Goals that were dependent upon practical implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

“Failure to grasp these issues within the limited and ever decreasing time available will have catastrophic consequences for our planet,” Prince Charles said.[tweetquote]

The world’s “rapidly alarming urbanisation” presented urgent and complex challenges, he said. “If the world’s urban footprint is to grow, we do have an unprecedented opportunity to redefine urban development.”

If cities are planned and managed sensitively, Prince Charles said, they can have social, environmental, and commercial value that can help tackle climate change and foster inclusive prosperity.

Local communities, Prince Charles said, had a vital and invaluable role to play in urban planning.

Prince Charles urged WUF9 participants to share and develop practical initiatives and working partnerships “that will make the New Urban Agenda a transformative reality”.

Business as usual, he said, was not an option.

It was repeated many times at WUF9 that the time for action is now.

Cities as ‘the engines of modern society’

In her video message to the forum, the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed, said that cities were the engines of modern society, and the powerhouses of the global economy.

“In the next two decades, we should expect to see urban areas in Africa and Asia grow to 50 million people or more, bigger than many small nations.

“We need to ensure that these mega-cities of the future are inclusive, green, smart, and are prepared for climate-related shocks and crises of all kinds.”

Given the rapid growth of today’s cities, Amina Mohammed said, decision-making needed to evolve with the requirements of each city, and the tools of each generation.

“If urban growth is to be sustainable, women and young people must be front and centre of all decision-making processes.

“Inclusivity is critical. Planners must engage the most vulnerable and those who are hardest to reach. We must listen to the voices of the marginalised and isolated communities in slums.”

The strength of the grassroots

Rose Molokwane from Slum Dwellers International (SDI) talked at the Women’s Assembly about the strength and knowledge of grassroots people.

“We are the women who are transforming their own cities. We are the problems and we are the solutions. We want to be part of the decision-making.”[tweetquote]

Molokwane was one of the speakers at WUF9 who talked about the wealth of information that is being collected by women.

SDI, she said, had collected slum data from 103 cities around the world. Grassroots women, she said, had been mobilised in 51 countries and were building partnerships with local and national governments to ensure that their contribution to the 2030 agenda is recognised and supported.

“We have convened national dialogues to consolidate our role in implementation and monitoring of the global commitments.”

Nearly two hundred grassroots representatives from countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the Caribbean attended WUF9.

One of them was Violet Shivutse from the Shibuye Community Health Workers (SCHW) in Kakamega, Kenya, which brings together grassroots women working on health issues as caregivers.

SCHW comes under the umbrella of the Huairou Commission, which is a coalition that empowers grassroots women leaders in development and policy-making around the world.

Shivutse told Changing Times it was important that grassroots representatives were involved in global policy making; that they are able to enter into dialogue with and influence governments and ensure that those governments are implementing the New Urban Agenda.

“We are the ones who understand the issues. We are the ones who are working at the local level so we need to have dialogues with our government.”

During the Women’s Assembly, Ana Falú, who is from Argentina, and chairs the UN-Habitat’s Advisory Group on Gender Issues, called for a global women’s strike on International Women’s Day on March 8.


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Seeing ageing as positive 

Katherine Kline from the United States spoke at numerous sessions about the role and situation of older people. “Ageing,” she told participants, “is a positive, not a negative.”

Older women, Kline said, should be seen as “active contributors to society, not necessarily as charity beneficiaries”.

They are donating hundreds of hours of unpaid caregiving work, and contribute via the “silver economy”, Kline said.

Kline, who is 72, and is the co-chair of the Habitat III General Assembly of Partners (GAP) for older persons, said that 58 percent of the world’s 900 million older people now live in towns and cities.

“By 2050, that number is projected to rise to over two billion.”

One in eight people alive today is aged 60 or above, Kline points out. While Africa is currently home to a relatively small number of older people, that number is projected to increase from 64 million to 105 million by 2030.

“By 2030 older persons are expected to account for over 25 percent of the population in Europe and northern America, 17 percent in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and six percent in Africa,” Kline said.[tweetquote]

She told Changing Times that, in the urban environment, one of the things that is absolutely critical for older people is public space.

“Too many of them live isolated in their own homes and don’t have a safe, secure, and reliable space near where they live to go out and intermingle with the rest of the world and therefore they’re sequestered and they get depressed and it’s not healthy.”

Kline, who describes herself as a “change agent”, tells the story of an architect in Hong Kong, Robert Wong, who took the time to consult with older Chinese men and women about the renovation of a park near a senior residential home. Between them, they came up with ideas that not only made the park appropriate for older people, but may be replicated elsewhere in the city.

She also talks about her mother, “who’s 92, who’s written four books, who’s doing two musicals at the moment, and just gave up playing tennis a month ago”.

Neighbourhood protection for older people

Community activist, caregiver, farmer, and leading member of the Land Access Movement of South Africa (LAMOSA) Emily Tjale was another of the dynamic grassroots voices at WUF9.

She told Changing Times that older persons needed to be included in discussions, planning, and decision-making processes, “in coming up with constructing safety and security for the older people and also protecting them from violence, protecting them from other people who may abuse them economically, socially, politically, and otherwise”.

Older people have wisdom, knowledge, skill, and life experience, and should not be marginalised, Tjale says.

Tjale recounted the story of older women in her community who were being swindled by two teenaged schoolgirls who would approach them, offering to help them when they were drawing out their pensions and other social benefit money.

Community activists identified the girls responsible and enlisted the help of the police to introduce better safety measures to protect the older people. They introduced 24/7 neighbourhood patrols and the authorities changed the system for obtaining payments so that people who were unable to write no longer just had to sign with a cross, but had to make a finger or thumb mark.

Creating sustainable peace

One of the voices that carried weight throughout WUF9 was that of the Secretary General of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Emilia Saiz.

In a debate about sustainable urban development for peace and security Saiz told attendees that cities are not designed for the poor and the weakest, but for the strongest and the richest.

Cities, Saiz said, were at the origin of creativity, diversity, and wealth, but were are also very much the source of conflict. It was important, she said, to make the distinction between conflict and violence.

“While you cannot avoid conflict,” Saiz said, “what we need to avoid is the violence around it.

“In order to create a sustainable peace we need to address the source of conflicts.”[tweetquote]

There needs to be an understanding of the types of violence faced in cities, Saiz says, and the challenges need to be addressed systematically at local, national, and international levels.

“The origin of violence,” she said, “is usually inequality and poorly managed conflict.”

Saiz says that a new system of governance is needed. “I think that we are probably witnessing the collapse of governance as we’ve known it.

“The way that we deal with each other and we govern with each other is being questioned, in particular in urban areas, and we will very soon need to readdress how the social contract is defined.”[tweetquote]

We need, Saiz says, to construct our development and our vision of the future as humanity together.

“Our future should be shaped by the knowledge and the needs and the expectations of the people, and the people are the communities, the communities that need to co-govern.”

Governance, Saiz says, is not about government. “Governance is about partnership between citizens and the government. It’s about co-creating.”

Some commitments that have been made at international level have not been kept, Saiz told forum attendees, and they need to be kept.

“We are very much in need of a stronger global government system. We need a stronger multilateral system because our world is so interconnected right now that it can no longer be governed in the way that we have been doing it for the past recent decades.

“We need to think of a different system with different actors at the decision-making table.”

In the same debate, the Minister for Works and Human Settlement in Bhutan, Dorji Choden, talked about nurturing our society. “Peace and harmony has to come from people themselves,” she said.

Choden spoke about partnering with the grassroots and community policing by high school students.

Urbanisation, Choden said, was gripping her country, and Bhutan was facing such challenges as providing housing, transport, and drinking water.

Choden said that, along with making city life truly inclusive, and ensuring that structures and public spaces are safe, the authorities and planners needed to engage young people.

“Do they have enough entertainment facilities? Are there enough opportunities for jobs? These are some of the questions we need to discuss.”

Leadership and good governance, Choden said, were key to making cities safe and peaceful, and stakeholders at all levels, from civil society to the public sector, had to be involved.

The mayor of Hebron in Palestine, Taysir Mahmoud Mousa Taha Abu Sneineh, also spoke about empowering local youth, and building six centres to provide youth services and build youth capacities, for instance in information technology.

Hassan Abdelgadir Hilal from the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Physical Development in Sudan said that sustainable peace and sustainable development were two sides of the same coin.

Deputy Minister from the Ministry of Municipalities in Afghanistan Abdul Baqi Popal talked about the importance of engaging communities and increasing their sense of ownership.

He spoke about Afghanistan’s community development councils, which are elected grassroots bodies, each representing two hundred households. This scale of representation creates real consultation, transparency, and a sense of belonging, Popal says.

The situation in Afghanistan, after four decades of war was of course very difficult, Popal said. “The good thing is we have really planned our national priority programmes.”

The two main programmes, Popal explained, were the Urban National Priority Programme and the Citizens’ Charter National Priority Programme. Every single family, including those in rural areas and in refugee settlements, was involved in the consultation process, and in improving their neighbourhoods, Popal said.

Recently, Popal said, Afghanistan introduced occupancy certificates for people living in informal settlements, who made up nearly 70 percent of the urban population, and previously had a sense of insecurity. The measure covers informal residence settlements up to 300 square metres and there is a condition that the name of both the man and woman heading the household are on the land deeds.

Popal cited one previously informal settlement of about 10,000 households, which had an extremely bad reputation, but, after property registration, has gradually become very secure.

The executive director of the Sistren Theatre Collective in Jamaica, Lana Louise Finikin, who is also a member of the Huairou Commission, talked about how violence has been reduced as a result of community action.

Sistren has used street theatre to promote discussion about community safety since 1977, with programmes about gender-based violence, crime prevention, and HIV/AIDS.

Peace, safety and security, Finikin says, are not achievable with the involvement of grassroots women.

Providing safe public spaces for women and girls is not readily considered in development and planning processes, Finikin says. “We should and must change this to be able to achieve peace and security.”

Finikin talked about the importance of local-to-local dialogue and of mapping what is happening in local communities and passing that information on to local authorities.

“We as grassroots women are experts in what we are doing and we need to be sitting at that table. We need to be there discussing and making the plans.

“If women and girls are not safe, then the world won’t be safe.”

There have been successes in Jamaica, Finikin said. “The entire Jamaica police force is now using the community policing tool to deal with community violence or crime.”

Women who have carried out the community audit are now involved in local authority discussions, and are sitting on school boards, Finikin says.

“When a flare-up has taken place, they are called in as counsellors to work with the students to ensure that the violence or the flare-up is minimised and contained.”

Jamaica’s Newlands area used to have a very bad reputation for violence, but Finikin says that, because of the safety audit tool, there have been no murders in the community since 2009.

Protecting urban heritage

One of the ironies of WUF9 is that it was held in a city where high-rise development has been occurring at a pace and on a scale that has left little space for preserving heritage, creating pleasant public spaces, or meeting the needs of pedestrians or cyclists.

Whilst there is a good transport system in the KL city centre, there are continual traffic jams, and communities continue to be fragmented or demolished to make way for office blocks and luxury condominiums.

Just a couple of kilometres walk from the KL convention centre where WUF9 took place is Kampong Bharu, which is the last remaining kampong (village) in the KL city centre.

The entire kampong is slated for demolition to make way for high-rises, and the old market area and stage have already gone.

KL’s iconic Ampang Park shopping centre, which was the city’s first shopping mall, built in 1973,  has been demolished, along with many historic buildings in Brickfields. Several other landmarks, including the city’s old railway station, have been sadly neglected and are now dilapidated.

During a WUF9 press conference a journalist questioned Maimunah Mohd Sharif about Kampong Baru and asked whether kampongs were part of a cultural heritage that should be preserved and protected.

Sharif declined to comment specifically about Kampong Bharu, and suggested that the journalist direct his question to the KL city council, but she did say that culture and heritage were important ingredients in sustainable development.

Many fine and important words were spoken at WUF9 about urban regeneration, inclusion, and sustainability, and positive actions are sure to result from the debates, information exchanges, and networking that took place.

In their declaration at the end of the forum, the participants called for “the deployment of all efforts, means, and resources available towards the operationalisation of the concept of cities for all”.

However, if settlements like Kampong Bharu, which is a real urban village with a history dating back to its creation in 1899, are allowed to disintegrate and disappear, then those words will have somewhat of a hollow ring, in the case of KL at least.

The old market area and stage in Kampong Bharu being demolished in November 2014.


Earlier coverage here and here.