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In praise of cities

26 March 2018 Author: John Acres

It is a sobering thought that by 2050, the world’s urban population is expected to nearly double, according to the New Urban Agenda published by the United Nations following the 2016 Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador.

Urbanisation has been gathering pace across the world in recent decades to the point where, for the first time, over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities.

Whilst in our own country the debate tends to concentrate on containing development spread and protecting our surrounding rural areas, elsewhere in the world the emphasis is more on coping with the pressures of growing cities, addressing the acute problems which arise from urban concentration and continuing rural depopulation.

The New Urban Agenda addresses the issues of poverty, respect for humanity and equality of opportunity, and combats the impact of growing cities on climate change – and conversely, the very impact of climate change on some growing cities in lower lying areas.

World Urban Forum

It was against that background that in February I attended the 9th World Urban Forum (WUF9) in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia - one of the fastest growing cities in the world and in a country with a 6% real GDP growth rate, nearly 4 times the level of growth in the UK.  KL has a mind-boggling scale of development, both absolutely and vertically, overshadowed by a myriad of 50+ storey blocks, and topped by the 88 storey Petronas Towers, still the tallest twin-towers in the world.

The purpose of WUF9 was to try to put some flesh on the bones of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals devised following the Paris Accord in 2015, and show how the broad objectives and aspirations of the New Urban Agenda could be put into practice and translated in the real world. It brought together delegates from countries throughout the world and exhibition displays from many countries in some cases gave a very different picture from one’s intuitive pre-conception. The UK was conspicuously absent from the exhibition.

Local actions

My task was to present UK case studies on ‘Good Governance’ in one of the seminar sessions as well as to chair sessions on Climate Change and Rapid Urbanisation under the guise of the Global Planners Network and the Commonwealth Association of Planners – two organisations which advance planners’ perceptions of world-wide planning problems.

We heard how Malaysia is handling their exponential growth rate against a background where the President of their Planning Institute described urbanisation as a ‘symbol’ of their rapid development. He also gave examples of how some African communities were developing smaller bio-energy plants from local toilets (instead of using more costly solar panels which would have been more expensive than their houses), and where whole communities in the various southern Pacific Islands were being re-located from low-lying areas susceptible to storms and tsunamis to higher ground.

The final day was marked by the launch of a new book called ‘Leading Change; Delivering the New Urban Agenda’ co-written by Cliff Hague, former RTPI President, and published in conjunction between UN Habitat and the South African Government. It includes case studies which are designed to translate the broad objectives and aspirations into action.     

Shared problems worldwide

What was fascinating to discover was that all countries tend to face similar problems: a marked disparity between rich and poor; difficulty in securing genuinely affordable housing; and a tension between delivering growth and engaging in genuine public participation – and taking people with you.  Planning is never going to be easy.

However, what was deeply reassuring was that against all the pressures faced by different countries around the world, each with their different characteristics, cultures and climates, all were prepared to work together in harmony to tackle the pressures of urbanisation, address each other’s problems and try and combat the resultant impact on climate change.

Lessons for the UK

Perhaps there are lessons there for our own politicians and the British press, who need to focus on the real issues facing people in this country and around the world – and focus on  those issues which bind us rather than those which divide us.     

John Acres

John Acres

John Acres MRTPI is the President of the RTPI.