Photo: Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury (third from left), former Under-Secretary-General and High Representative of the United Nations, who is the Chairman of the Global Forum on Human Settlements (GFHS) since 2008, delivered the opening address to the 13th GFHS Annual Session in Bangkok on 30 October 2018. Credit: GFHS. - Photo: 2018

Cities Have the Potential to Shape the Future of Humankind

Viewpoint by Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury*

The following are extensive extracts from the opening address by Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, former Under-Secretary-General and High Representative of the United Nations, who is the Chairman of the Global Forum on Human Settlements (GFHS) since 2008, at the 13th GFHS Annual Session in Bangkok on 30 October 2018. – The Editor

NEW YORK (IDN-INPS) – We live at a time of unprecedented, rapid, irreversible urbanization. Beginning in 2008, for the first time, half of humanity is now living in towns and cities … but this dramatic transition is far from over. In reality the beginning of a new urban era is being felt. It is projected that globally urbanization levels will rise dramatically in the next 35 years to reach 70 percent by 2050 when the world population is expected to hit 9 billion.

Urbanization, like globalization, is an irreversible process. Urban growth is most rapid in the developing world, where cities gain an average of 5 million residents every month. As our meeting venue is hosted at the headquarters of ESCAP, let me bring to your attention that Asia is urbanizing rapidly, with approximately 41 per cent of its inhabitants now living in cities. By 2050, Asia will host 63 per cent of the global urban population, or 3.3 billion people. In Asia, the urban transition will occur mainly owing to rapid urban growth rate in China, a country that is expected to be 70 per cent urban by 2050.

We are encouraged as the world leaders adopted by consensus in September 2015 the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which included among its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a specific goal – Goal 11 – to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”

Urbanization offers unprecedented opportunities for increasing living standards, life expectancy and literacy levels, environmental sustainability and more efficient use of increasingly scarce natural resources. For women, urbanization offers the potential benefits in terms of greater access to employment opportunities, lower fertility levels and increased independence.

At the same time, urban poverty is a severe, pervasive – and largely unacknowledged – feature of modern life. More and more people will end up in the developing world’s growing slums. Securing jobs, shelter, water, electricity, education, health services for all are a truly daunting task.

If cities are hubs of dynamism, change and opportunity, they are also places of exploitation, disease and unemployment. New tensions are emerging between migrants and established residents, adding to already sharp divisions along class, racial and ethnic lines.

Most significantly, a gendered perspective of urban poverty highlights fundamental issues of equality and social justice by showing women’s unequal position in the urban labor market and their greater exposure to violence. I believe that unless women and communities are involved in decision making and policy development at every level of governance, changes to women’s political and socio-economic status will be minimal, and, as a consequence, the expected improvement of human settlements will be greatly constrained.

New Urban Agenda” (NUA) adopted at Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador in 2016, coming on the heels of the adoption of the SDGs seeks to create a mutually reinforcing relationship between urbanization and development. The idea is that these two global endeavours will become parallel vehicles for sustainable development.

Beyond the specific technocratic solutions of economics and governance, several core ideas form, I believe, the ideological underpinnings of the New Urban Agenda. Democratic development and respect for human rights feature prominently, for instance, as does the relationship between the environment and urbanization.

Similarly, the New Urban Agenda includes significant focus on equity in the face of globalization, as well as how to ensure the safety and security of everyone who lives in urban areas, of any gender, age and background.

In recent years, the human rights dimension of human settlements issue, particularly in the context of the Right to Development, has been highlighted. As we observe this year the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we note that the right to adequate housing joined the body of international, universally applicable and universally accepted human rights as enunciated in the Declaration.

Since that time, this right has been reaffirmed in a wide range of additional human rights instruments, each of which is relevant to distinct groups within society. No less than 12 different texts adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations explicitly recognize the right to adequate housing. Access to drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities are additional basic needs directly associated with the right to housing.

As has been experienced on many occasions, housing, land and property issues can fuel conflicts and be used as weapons in conflict. Of all the private land in the world, nearly three quarters is estimated to be controlled by just 2.5 per cent of all landowners.

The state of sheer homelessness in the world today along with the immense crisis faced by millions living in inadequate and insecure housing and living conditions, call for a combination of a humanitarian and a human rights approach.

As globalization expands, more cities will find themselves managing problems and opportunities that used to be the exclusive domain of national governments.

Let me conclude by underscoring that sustainable urban development is one of the most pressing challenges facing the human community in the 21st century. As more and more people make cities their home, cities will be the arenas in which some of the world’s biggest social, economic, environmental and political challenges will be faced and need to be addressed collectively.

Cities have the potential to shape the future of humankind and to win the battle for sustainable development. Cities are at the forefront of the global battle against climate change. In the last two decades, cities and urban centres have become the dominant habitats for humankind and the engine-rooms of human development as a whole.  As such, the leadership role of mayors and city governments is of fundamental importance.

It is therefore significant that GFHS has, since its establishment, been focusing on these challenges at each of its annual conferences. This thirteenth forum in the series in Bangkok is again another timely, relevant and appropriate initiative that is aimed at making the international community alert and proactive with regard to the issues of urbanization in a holistic manner.

For over a decade, GFHS has been working tirelessly to promote, implement and contribute to the realization of MDGs and Habitat Agenda, as well as to the implementation of SDGs and the New Urban Agenda in recent years, through concrete actions including convening annual conferences, organizing relevant capacity-building events, hosting sustainable cities and human settlements awards, developing International Green Model City (IGMC) Standards including rating system, promoting IGMC Initiative, running World Best Practices Magazine and other publications. The agenda of GFHS also has been according special attention to “Women and Children in the Rapidly Urbanizing World”.

GFHS strongly advocates for enhanced and lasting partnership which not only echoes with SDG 17, but also calls for breaking the political, economic, social, gender and even geographic hierarchy. This builds comprehensive, cooperative, pragmatic and equal partnership. This will also facilitate implementation of SDGs and NUA.

Bearing in mind its mission (“Building sustainable cities and human settlements for all”) and the active role in promoting UN’s sustainable development policies, initiatives and efforts, GFHS has been proactively engaging and supporting stakeholders at the local and regional level in terms of sustainable urban and human settlements, and bring the global sustainability agenda to local levels and promote local actions.

GFHS actively mobilizes resources to facilitate and help the representatives from governments and civil society of small island developing states, land-locked developing countries and least developed countries to participate in its annual sessions and to get the opportunity to interact with participants from other countries as well as to network with development partners.

GFHS launched IGMC initiative for the purpose of developing green city pilot projects and creating sustainable cities around the world. To guide the IGMC initiative in future, GFHS continues to develop IGMC criteria versions 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0.   IGMC Standards 3.0 is an assessment and planning guidance tool for sustainable urban development. It provides technical means and evaluation methods for the specific implementation of Goal 11 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the New Urban Agenda at local and community levels. With cities facing systemic, technical and financial challenges of implementing the SDGs and NUA, IGMC standards offers a comprehensive implementable framework to help put SDGs and NUA into practice at city level. This will considerably support the realization of these two global agendas.

* Ambassador Chowdhury spoke about ‘Advancing Urban Innovations towards Achieving SDG11 and New Urban Agenda adopted at Habitat III’. [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 November 2018]

Photo: Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury (third from left), former Under-Secretary-General and High Representative of the United Nations, who is the Chairman of the Global Forum on Human Settlements (GFHS) since 2008, delivered the opening address to the 13th GFHS Annual Session in Bangkok on 30 October 2018. Credit: GFHS.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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