OPINION: Why we need an urbanization reset

by Matt Benson | World Cities Report 2020
Saturday, 31 October 2020 10:00 GMT

People pass by the Eiffel Tower before the national lockdown introduced as part of the new COVID-19 measures to fight a second wave of the coronavirus disease, in Paris, France, October 29, 2020. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The pandemic has shone a light on cities’ failure to protect the most vulnerable

By Matt Benson, member of the International Advisory Board for the World Cities Report 2020/                                                                                 .

Like the majority of city dwellers I am a migrant. Eight years ago I relocated from Melbourne, Australia, to George Town on Penang Island in northern Malaysia. Both cities are recognized internationally for their liveability, amenities, culture, heritage, food, innovative economies and natural assets offering prosperity and improved wellbeing for the majority of their citizens.

At the same time I was moving between these two cities the United Nation’s Human Settlements Programme or UN-Habitat published its flagship report -  the State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013. The number of global urban citizens had just exceeded half of the total world population but it was evident that the lure of the city was not delivering benefits for all or harvesting the potential that they could offer.

The opening sentence in the foreword of that report was “This is a time of crises” and it called for a more holistic and sustainable approach to urban development. The report explicitly acknowledged that urbanization itself, if rethought and managed well, could transform lives for the better. These themes prevailed in the World Cities Report 2016 with more emphasis on urban planning and services.

Fast forward to 31 October 2020. We are amidst an even deeper crisis with socio-cultural, economic, environmental and health dimensions. A reflection of that reality is that in cities around the world, a digital event will take place to celebrate World Cities Day and launch UN-Habitat’s World Cities Report 2020.

The report itself is an important milestone. Subtitled The Value of Sustainable Urbanization it is the first report card since Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in 2016, and the global commitment to the New Urban Agenda.

It is being launched during a pandemic where most of the world is living with some form of movement restriction, with discussions around the future of urbanism and concerns that, for the first time in decades, the number of people living in extreme poverty will increase.

COVID-19 is a result of rapid and uncontrolled urban sprawl encroaching into natural systems leading to the transmission of a zoonotic disease to humans. It is an externality of urbanization not an external threat. It has exposed the inadequacies of many of our institutions and has shone light on our failure to protect the most vulnerable. At the same time we are adapting by working and learning from home, participating in online events and taking preventative measures to ensure our health.

The World Cities Report 2020 sees this moment as a chance to reset and ‘build back better’ with clear links to calls from others for a new modality focusing on stakeholders rather than shareholders. The key message is that the collective actions of cities – their leaders and citizens – must transform the way we interact with nature and each other, address inequality and significantly reduce our carbon footprint.

The solutions offered are practical – the use of technology to solve urban problems; introducing new forms of mobility; harnessing the talents of migrants; tailored programs for the vulnerable; and nature-based solutions to help adapt to climate change. Arching above these is an implicit call for systemic institutional change. The report card for cities has not improved in many areas, with the failings often due to a lack of funding or capacity. Local government is rightly identified as the agency most likely to drive the New Urban Agenda and where the focus ought to be.

In 2024 the next World Cities Report will be published. Hopefully the key theme will be a showcase of cities around the world that have fully embraced sustainable urbanization principles following the lead of places like Paris, converting streets to cycling boulevards; or a Medellín in Colombia, that has invested heavily in nature-based solutions; or any number of cities around the world aspiring to be carbon neutral.

Where will I be living? As a planner/geographer by profession it is likely that I will be drawn to cities struggling with the challenges of sustainable urbanization. At the very least, it is likely that there will be more examples to inspire them and roadmaps to help them get there. The World Cities Report 2020 is an essential read for those on that journey.