The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) started in 1976 with the UN Conference on Human Settlements in Vancouver, Canada, at a time when the governments began seriously to perceive the cities under their jurisdictions as “emerging futures” in their own right. Opening the event, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau aptly summarized the worldwide (and ongoing) challenge as follows: “Human settlements are linked so closely to existence itself, represent such a concrete and widespread reality, are so complex and demanding, so laden with questions of rights and desires, with needs and aspirations, so racked with injustices and deficiencies, that the subject cannot be approached with the leisurely detachment of the solitary theoretician.”
Tracking the last twenty years of development reveals a global transformation that positions cities at the core of the development agenda. Urbanization is indeed one of the most significant trends of the past and present century, providing the foundation and momentum for global change. The shift towards an increasingly urbanized world constitutes a transformative force which can be harnessed for a more sustainable development trajectory, with cities taking the lead to address many of the global challenges of the 21st century, including poverty, inequality, unemployment, environmental degradation, and climate change. Cities have become a positive and potent force for addressing sustainable economic growth, development and prosperity, and for driving innovation, consumption and investment in both developed and developing countries. This dramatic shift towards urban life has profound implications for energy consumption, politics, food security and human progress. Although some of this change is positive, poorly planned urbanization can potentially generate economic disorder, congestion, pollution and civil unrest.
The “emerging futures” of cities will largely depend on whether urban housing is cast in decent buildings or in loads more unsustainable, ramshackle shelter. Housing determines the mutual relationship between every single human being and surrounding physical and social space. This involves degrees of exclusion or inclusion in terms of collective and civic life which, together with socioeconomic conditions, are the essence of urban dynamics. That is why the fate of housing will largely determine the fate of our cities. The sustainable future of cities and the benefits of urbanization strongly depend on future approaches to housing.
Urban history shows us that cities are the sites of innovation. They are the places where new economic ideas crystallize, where heterogeneous groupings of people learn to co-exist as neighbours, and where democratic experiments emerge to make way for previously excluded social groups to be included as genuine decision-makers. The high density of people in cities facilitates economic growth through better sharing, matching and learning, and as Alfred Marshal famously said, just the sheer concentration of people leads to new ideas because “ideas are in the air.” Not only do cities feature high densities of people, but their high densities also force people of different religions, nationalities, ethnicities and sexual orientations to live and work alongside one another, and in doing so, they get to know “the other,” leading to a cosmopolitan respect for differences.
Urban development enables human communities to expand the amount of space available to them even as the surface of planet Earth appears to be more finite than ever. This is the apparent paradox that can turn urbanization and environmental sustainability into a workable challenge. Beyond more verticality and density, this realization speaks to the transformative power of urbanization, a notion that has increasingly been recognized over 40 years of global policy-making through a succession of challenges and breakthroughs. The 1976 Vancouver Declaration described uncontrolled urbanization as a problem leading to overcrowding, pollution and general deterioration of living conditions in urban areas.
Urban development unfolds over decades and frequently outlives its architects, both literal and metaphorical. Good quality urban law provides predictability and order in urban development, from a wide range of perspectives, including spatial, societal, economic and environmental, and, through this, contributes to investment, strong economic performance and wealth creation. The quality of human settlements and urban governance affect the quality of life of billions of individuals. Choices made in relation to settlements have tangible positive or negative effects on social justice, good governance, democratic decision-making, economic development, upholding fundamental rights and transparency.
Cities drive economic productivity and prosperity. As urbanization has advanced so have global economic output, poverty reduction and social well-being. Yet, unplanned urbanization has also often led to pollution, congestion, segregation, sprawl and other unintended consequences. In 1996, the Habitat Agenda recognized as much with a set at of goals, principles, com urbanization while limiting those more negative impacts, emphasizing adequate shelter for all and sustainable human settlements. Since Habitat II, unprecedented population growth in many cities keeps challenging governments, business and civil society for adequate responses. Other cities have declined in population, with attendant economic and environmental challenges. At the turn of the millennium, UN-Habitat understood that advancing the Habitat Agenda would require changes in the way urban planning is practised around the globe.
Urban economies are primarily people-centred. Individual capital in all its forms — social, physical, technical, cultural, scientific, etc.— converges and combines in a variety of innovative ways and this productivity benefits all, spreading prosperity beyond city limits. This perennial dynamics is for cities to nurture through adequate healthcare, education, services, environments and institutions. Now, as governments and civil society prepare for the Habitat III conference, the “emerging futures” of many cities around the world seem elusive for their inhabitants due to persistent poverty and increased inequality and the emergence of new threats such as climate change and insecurity as highlighted in the preceding chapters.
Cities are the platforms for global and local change in the 21st century. Urban landscapes are the spaces of convergence of economies, cultures, political, and ecological systems. Demographic concentration is both an outcome and incentive for growth, migration, trade, and cultural production. Built environments and natural ecologies have become the infrastructure of 21st century society, shaping encounters, assimilation, resistance, and innovation. With more than 80 per cent of the world’s goods and services now produced in urban areas— and 80 per cent of future growth to 20301 expected to occur in cities— it is not an exaggeration to assert that the economic and social futures of whole countries, regions, and the world will be made in cities, today’s nests of “emerging futures.” “Place is the most important correlate of a person’s welfare,” as noted by the World Bank.
Unsustainable imbalances between geography, ecology, economy, society, and institutions are making the “emerging futures” of too many cities unpromising. Rapid demographic and spatial growth, coupled with the expansion of economic activities and the environmental footprint of cities, have triggered dynamics which public institutions are unable to manage effectively. While in some cities, for some people, former New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s “urban renaissance” is occurring, for most of the world this is absolutely not the case. Urban policy failure has been spectacular in its visibility and devastating in its impacts on men, women and children in many cities. Passive (or “spontaneous”) urbanization as a model has proven to be unsustainable.
The analysis of urban development of the past twenty years presented in this maiden edition of the World Cities Report shows, with compelling evidence, that there are new forms of collaboration and cooperation, planning, governance, finance and learning that can sustain positive change. The Report unequivocally demonstrates that the current urbanization model is unsustainable in many respects. It conveys a clear message that the pattern of urbanization needs to change in order to better respond to the challenges of our time, to address issues such as inequality, climate change, informality, insecurity, and the unsustainable forms of urban expansion.