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INTERVIEW-"Global policymakers don't lead revolutions, cities do"

by Zoe Tabary | zoetabary | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 13 October 2016 13:13 GMT

In this 2011 file photo, a man cycles in front of a makeshift baobab tree during a climate change conference in Durban, South Africa. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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Debra Roberts, resilience chief of Durban, South Africa, says cities facing mounting pressures need more practical help

By Zoe Tabary

LONDON, Oct 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new United Nations strategy to address the challenges faced by rapidly growing cities lacks sufficient detail to allow cities to act on it, warned a leading government resilience expert from South Africa.

Debra Roberts, chief resilience officer of the city of Durban, warned that the U.N.'s "New Urban Agenda" - which sets out guidelines for sustainable urban development over the next 20 years - is too vague to be effectively put into action.

The strategy is expected to be approved next week at a major U.N. conference on housing and urban development in Quito.

"The draft in its current form is too aspirational. It isn't associated with any clear development pathways for cities," Roberts said at an event in London this week.

"It doesn't tell me as a local government official how I should do anything differently," she said.

The creation of new Sustainable Development Goals and a new global climate change agreement are "substantial achievements, but my concern is that we become so obsessed with getting the word 'city' or 'urban' into a U.N. text that we forget why we are doing it in the first place," she said.


Roberts told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that increasingly frequent and intense weather extremes, driven by climate change, will add to the pressures cities already face, such as rapid expansion, dwindling natural resources and aging populations.

More than half of the world's people live in cities today, but by 2050 that will rise to 70 percent, according to the U.N. Human Settlements Programme, or UN-Habitat.

Those challenges are compounded by increasingly unpredictable events with unintended or unforeseen consequences, said Roberts.

"We live in a scenario where history is no longer a good predictor of the future," she said.

That uncertainty and growing combination of pressures means cities face much more difficult and complex decisions, she said.

"Thirty years ago, cities' main concern would be delivering services like getting buses on time - but they now need to think about the bigger role they play in development," she said.


Roberts' advice to policymakers is that there is no global recipe for success. Instead, "it all comes down to understanding the local context," she said.

In Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, for instance, 70 percent of the city is made up of informal settlements. "That means it has a completely different development profile from another city - you can't just apply any global policy to it," she said.

Roberts added that "building resilience at a city level is quite a new idea in the government lexicon."

Durban, for instance, has carried out ambitious reforestation efforts in an effort to combat climate change while simultaneously creating jobs in a country where the official unemployment rate is over 25 percent.

According to a report by the city leadership, "the project created jobs for local community members in managing the nursery and planting the trees on site, and provided others with the opportunity to become 'treepreneurs' by growing locally sourced indigenous seedlings for the project."

Around the world, "we're seeing more initiatives around the world to help cities focus on climate adaptation and resilience," she said.


One key to creating genuinely sustainable development will be creating a platform for exchange of ideas and action plans among cities, Roberts said.

Right now, "many cities are excluded from the global conversation for lack of access and resources. We need to seek out those voices," she said.

She added that urban policy makers need to re-imagine government and engage with a wider range of actors, from civil society to business and academia. Practical demonstrations of what works also are needed, she said, as only in that way "do you capture the minds of leaders."

But she cautioned against looking to technology as a default solution to cities' problems.

"For many cities around the world, technology just isn't the answer yet. Social cohesion is key," she said.

Ultimately, she said, "global policymakers do not lead revolutions. Local people do."

Roberts delivered the 2016 Barbara Ward lecture convened by the International Institute for Environment and Development.

(Reporting by Zoe Tabary; editing by Laurie Goering:; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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