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OFID Quarterly January 2017 - Sustainable cities: Dead cert or science fiction?

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The New Urban Agenda: Seeing the bigger picture

Sustainable urbanization, as defined in the New Urban Agenda adopted at the Habitat III Summit in October 2016, has been hailed as a positive, transformative force for development. A process that, if properly planned and managed, will usher in a new era of wellbeing, resource efficiency and economic growth for billions of city dwellers.

And, indeed, millions of people have already escaped poverty by moving away from stagnating rural areas to the bright lights of a big city. Here, they have found better job opportunities, better living conditions and a vastly improved overall quality of life.

As the centers of mass production, consumption and service provision, cities the world over are the engines of economic growth. Collectively, they account for an astonishing 80 percent of global GDP. Even in countries that are largely agriculture based, cities outperform their national contexts in generating wealth, providing education and promoting health.

Little wonder then that urbanization across the developing world is growing at an unprecedented pace, as people flock to cities in search of their own little patch of lusher, greener grass.

Today, an estimated 55 percent of the global population lives in an urban setting. Even taking into consideration accelerated population growth, this share is expected to rise to 60 percent by 2030.
To accommodate these growing numbers, cities have had to expand their physical boundaries—usually haphazardly.

And this is where urbanization becomes problematic.

While for millions of people urban migration proves to be the ticket to a better life, for many it remains a lottery. Large numbers are just as likely to find themselves living without basic amenities in slums and informal settlements—a far cry from the Utopia of their dreams.

In keeping with the aspirations of SDG11, the New Urban Agenda sets out to manage urbanization in a way that will make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Places where people can live affordably and in harmony with their environment, while enjoying all the agglomeration benefits of a metropolis. It is a noble, if ambitious vision.

As an institution committed to sustainable development and the eradication of poverty, OFID naturally supports the New Urban Agenda. It recognizes that inequalities are often particularly evident in urban settings, and it will continue its efforts to narrow these gaps.

Indeed, over the years, OFID has done much to help improve city living, especially through its contribution to the energy sector, via improvements in the delivery, reliability and affordability of electricity.

In addition, we regularly support urban water and sanitation projects, as well as the health and education sectors. We’ve also undertaken numerous projects to make cities more resilient to flooding, coastal erosion and other natural disasters.

Our support is also visible in the area of transportation, with several metropolises enjoying better mobility thanks to mass transit systems, road bypasses and other infrastructure that help cut down travel time and make commuting cheaper and safer.

However, a word of caution is called for. While the New Urban Agenda certainly has its place, OFID is keenly aware that implementing it should not divert attention from the fact that poverty is still very much a rural phenomenon.

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, some 70 percent of the world’s extremely poor live in rural areas—a share that can rise as high as 80 or 90 percent in some countries.

Clearly then, any attempt to eliminate global poverty must include a focus on strengthening rural communities: through infrastructure investment, capacity building, job creation, and access to basic services.

Such efforts are essential to halt the drift of desperate people from the countryside to the city. They are essential for inclusive economic growth. And, perhaps most vital of all, they are essential for world food security.

An added benefit, in the context of urbanization, is that by revitalizing rural areas and giving people—especially youth—a good enough reason to stay, we can ease the burden on cities as they strive for sustainability.

It’s a win-win scenario. So let’s make it work.