Forum sets out massive challenges created by rising urban population

With the rapid shift of the world's population from countryside to urban areas reaching fresh heights, there is an urgent need for more action to tackle poverty and establish healthy environments, maintains Janet O'Neill.

This year marked the point at which urban dwellers made up more than half of the world's population. Cities attract millions each year who leave rural subsistence to strive for a better life. In developing countries, the vast majority move from rural poverty to urban poverty. There is no decent housing awaiting them, no clean water or sewage systems and inadequate schools and hospitals.

The State of the World's Cities: Harmonious Cities is a UN-Habitat analysis of this movement that looks at global warming, climate change and the impacts of rapid urbanisation on cities' ecological footprints. It was launched last week at World Urban Forum 4 in Nanjing, China. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon pointed out that inequality and the unsustainable use of energy are neither inevitable aspects of urban development nor necessary for urbanisation and economic growth.

"As this report illustrates, cities can advance inhabitants' prosperity while achieving equitable social outcomes and fostering the sustainable use of resources. Many small, well-managed cities in the developing and developed worlds are enjoying rapid growth, giving us a chance to stave off entrenched poverty and cultivate healthy environments."

The forum allowed representatives of developed and developing nations to share information, knowledge, visions and objectives on global problems. A congress of the Global Planners' Network (GPN) preceded it. This was formed ahead of World Urban Forum 3 in Vancouver in 2006.

That event produced the GPN Vancouver declaration, which committed planning groups to work together and with others to tackle the challenges of rapid urbanisation, urbanisation of poverty, hazards posed by climate change and natural disasters. The forum placed a strong emphasis on planning as a tool for urban development and environmental management and as a means of preventing slum growth.

After Vancouver, the RTPI committed to creating a method for individual planners to analyse the problems facing their nations and their capacity to tackle them. More than 1,500 planners from 100 countries have replied so far. The analysis shows that the potential for planning is growing but remains underutilised and there is an overwhelming need to enhance capacity among planners and understanding among politicians.

These results were discussed at the GPN congress. It then issued a communique inviting World Urban Forum 4 to reassess planning's importance as a tool for improving settlements and environmental management, and as a means of slowing slum formation, mitigating hazards and building safe and inclusive settlements.

Governments are invited to design planning systems in light of these priorities. Donor agencies and other bodies are encouraged to recognise that effective planning can contribute to poverty alleviation by creating economic opportunities and sustaining assets. Other professionals, civil society groups and private sector stakeholders are called on to contribute knowledge and skills to enhance capacity building.

The communique was debated at the forum and other planning groups were called on to sign the Vancouver declaration. The ten principles of new urban planning are sustainability, integrated planning, integration with budgets, planning with partners, subsidiarity, market responsiveness, access to land, appropriate tools, pro-poor and inclusive policies and cultural variation. The key one is the pro-poor policy. It is accepted that the trickle-down effect is not helping the poor and positive action is required on poverty.

At the close of the congress, Nanjing city leaders unveiled a plaque in the local park to commemorate the event and the words of the GPN communique are carved on it for perpetuity. Those who attended hope that the principles will become widely accepted and implemented to create harmonious settlements.

World Urban Forum 5 will be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2010 and GPN Congress 3 will be in Montreal, also in 2010. In the interim, much effort will be made by the RTPI and its sister institutes to increase the spread of the network, particularly among developing countries, so the amassed skills and experience of planners can be shared worldwide.

- Janet O'Neill is RTPI president.

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