Why we must pay more attention to city planning and management

A section of Nairobi's Kibera slums and Central Business District (CBD). [Davdi Njaaga, Standard]

The world’s population has reached eight billion. It is another milestone in human development.

For us, it is also a time to pause and rethink how to make our home, our planet, sustainable. If we fail to take care of the natural and built environments, we risk ruining our home and displacing billions of people.

It took the world 125 years to grow from one billion to two billion and only 12 years to get from seven billion to eight billion. There are more and more of us in the world. We have diversity, infinite opportunities, and multiple possibilities. However, our challenges and problems are not only multiplying but intensifying as well.

Urban areas absorb almost all the current and future population growth. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and towns. By 2050, this number will reach 70 per cent. The future of humanity is undoubtedly urban. We will continue to rapidly urbanise, especially in some countries in Asia and Africa. But our urban future is not uniform across regions and poses different scenarios.

In countries of the global north, where urbanisation is stabilising and slowing down, key priorities for the future of cities include managing cultural diversity, upgrading and modernising aging infrastructure, addressing the problem of shrinking and declining cities, and catering for the needs of the ageing population. At the same time, cities and human settlements of the global south struggle with different challenges – rising poverty, informal settlements, high levels of youth unemployment, and lack of basic services.

Today, one billion people live in slums and informal settlements. And this number is on the rise. It is most prevalent in three regions, home to about 85 per cent of slum residents globally – Central and Southeast Asia, 359 million; Eastern and Southeast Asia, 306 million and sub-Saharan Africa, 230 million, according to UN-Habitat World Cities Report 2022.

The recent quadruple ‘C’ crisis – Covid, Climate, Conflict, and Capital – has created even more challenges and put more pressure on urban areas both in the global north and south. Lack of affordable and adequate housing, natural disasters caused by extreme temperatures, ongoing conflicts, and rising living costs affect everyone. As UN-Habitat’s 2022 World Cities Report revealed, the Covid-19 pandemic created nearly 163 million newly poor people in 2021. Newly poor are those who have fallen into poverty due to the pandemic or those who could have exited poverty but remain poor. 

UN-Habitat’s data reveals that, over the next five decades, most expansion and urban growth will occur in low-income countries, 141 per cent of the growth will happen there. Lower-middle-income and high-income countries will only experience 44 per cent and 34 per cent growth, respectively.

Studies show that normally, urban land expansion happens at a slightly higher rate than population growth. This means that urban and territorial planning, resource allocation, and technical skills on the city level are extremely important for the future of our cities and our planet. Small cities and towns will be critical in ensuring we make progress toward sustainability.

City densities need to be planned so that they do not exert pressure on existing open land. Cities must also ensure that proper infrastructure and basic services are in place. Urban growth should be planned and not lead to overcrowding or unsustainable sprawl. For this, smaller and mid-sized cities need resources and training to raise specialists. For example, Asia and Africa have only one urban planner for about 77,000 and 100,000 people, respectively.

We must also consider adopting a new universal social contract that stipulates basic income, health coverage, and housing. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated to us how important housing is. Proper and adequate housing was the best vaccine against the virus. However, when people had to shelter in their places, a billion people could not do it simply because they did not have an adequate place to call home. Affordable housing programmes are essential to house growing populations. At the same time, investment in housing can create economic opportunities and more jobs in the construction sector.

Last, but not least, we need to think about effective multi-level governance. In practice, it means that all levels of government – city, regional, and national work together and adopt collaborative strategies and policies and allocate sufficient resources for implementing these policies. National urban policies need to connect with regional and local action plans and be translated into master plans and even district mappings. And cities and regions need funds in their coffers to implement these plans. This is what we mean when discussing effective local action and localisation of Sustainable Development Goals.  

The future of our planet and humanity will be determined in cities. It is high time we pay more attention to planning and managing our cities and human settlements. It is our chance to create a better quality of life for eight billion people worldwide.