“Cities are places where the divide between rich and poor is most apparent”

Dr Joan Clos

As a councillor in his native Barcelona between 1983 and 1987, Dr Joan Clos spearheaded the renovation of the city’s downtown Ciutat Vella district. Subsequently, he served two terms as Mayor of Barcelona, from 1997 to 2006, when he developed innovative investment projects, including the ‘Barcelona@22’ programme that injected new life into the city’s dilapidated industrial zones. He joined UN-Habitat as Executive Director in October 2010. 

Clos talks to Global about the impact that increased urbanisation is having upon the environment and the challenges that cities face as a result of climate change. He also stresses that securing property rights and the development of strong urban policy and planning will help make a difference to the everyday lives of the urban poor. 

Global: Urban populations are growing rapidly, especially in the developing world. What are the main drivers behind the move to the cities and what are the key challenges that increased urbanisation poses to governments in developed and developing countries alike?

Dr Joan Clos: The world has witnessed a huge increase in population over the last 20 or 30 years and with it a massive increase in the number of people living in cities. The real forces driving this shift are complex and different from Asia to Africa to Latin America, but one of the main reasons is rural and agricultural reform, which pushes people out of the rural areas and into cities to look for employment and opportunities. In the past, urbanisation was traditionally driven by industrialisation – a pull effect – but now we are seeing more of a push. One of the biggest challenges we face is how to sustain urbanisation without industrialisation. 

Much of the urban growth is in the form of high density, informal settlements on the edges of cities. Target 11 of Millennium Development Goal 7 states that “a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers” should be achieved by 2020. How is progress towards this goal going and is it still a reasonable target given that the number of slum dwellers has increased significantly since it was originally set, with some forecasts suggesting it will be as high as 1.4 billion by 2020?

This target needs to be reviewed because we have actually already accomplished and even exceeded this – more than 100 million people have successfully escaped slum conditions. However, the number of newcomers to slums far outweighs those leaving. Part of this is a measurement question, and there is a discussion taking place about how we should measure the standards of living in slums and the targets will need to be looked at as part of that process. On the plus sides there are good examples of slum upgrading that has been achieved, especially in the cities of China and North Africa. Tunisia, for example, has succeeded in eradicating slums entirely, which is a great achievement. Unfortunately, these successes are offset by huge expansion of slums in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-east Asia.

Cities can be extremely unequal environments with the very richest members of society living side by side with the very poorest. Economic inequality is compounded by social inequality – those with the lowest incomes have the worst housing and reduced access to electricity and essential services like drinking water and sanitation. How can we bridge the growing urban divide and help our cities reduce inequality?

Cities are places where the divide between rich and poor is most apparent but inequality is not an urban issue alone. We must look at inequality as a social issue that needs to be addressed by economic progress, the creation of job opportunities, and the increase of human and institutional capital. Urbanisation can contribute to the increased prosperity of cities and countries but it requires a strong national policy. We cannot do it alone. It will take a great deal of political will and resources. 

The importance of secure land and property rights as means of reducing poverty is widely recognised, yet forced removals and evictions are a constant threat for urban populations in some developing countries. What progress has been made during the last decade to improve land tenure and property rights for the urban poor and in particular for women? 

In the last 20 years, the issue of property rights, especially those of women, have been increasingly present in the agenda and this is a positive advance. Securing property rights is a good way to increase the speed of development and make a real impact in people’s everyday lives. We are against forced evictions because, although on the surface they may seem to make an initial impact, they fail to address the real issues, which can only be done by igniting in society a process of self-sustainable growth. The only way to address land issues is in a way that fully respects human rights. 

Urban areas are contributing significantly to the process of global warming – one estimate states that greenhouse gas emissions from cities represent 70 percent of the world’s pollution. How can cities keep their ecological footprint to a minimum and where are we currently seeing the most innovative solutions?

 The lion’s share of the responsibility lies with the rich countries whose energy use is far greater than countries in the developing world and comes primarily from fossil fuels. By comparison, the contribution of emerging economies is relatively low. However, with rapid urbanisation in developing countries, urban emissions are increasing significantly, particularly in countries such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Sometimes we find major variations of per capita greenhouse gas emissions between cities in the same country. This demonstrates that cities can choose carbon-friendly growth trajectories through smart urban planning, urban mobility and urban energy solutions.

The urban areas that are growing the fastest are those least able to cope with the threat of climate change. What additional challenges does global warming pose to city planners and municipal governments, especially in the developing world? Are there any examples of countries that are successfully climateproofing their cities?

This is one of the greatest contradictions of our time; developed countries are the biggest contributors to climate change, while developing countries are the greatest sufferers of its effects because they do not have the resources to address the problems. Combatting the effects of climate change takes huge investment in infrastructure. But I will say that many of the problems are caused by flooding and are a result of poor drainage, which, technologically, we solved centuries ago. Many of the problems caused by flooding could be addressed instantly with increased drainage and flood protection. After that we can look at the challenge of earthquakes, which require better quality buildings, etc. But we can begin with the basics. 

An increasing number of cities in the global South have started to implement robust climate change adaptation programmes. Early adapters include Durban in South Africa and Semarang in Indonesia, but smaller cities such as Sorsogon in the Philippines, St Louis in Senegal and Esmeraldas in Ecuador have also developed adaptation plans and are exploring financing options. 

The unplanned and haphazard nature of slums, coupled with extreme overcrowding, makes it especially difficult to supply water, sanitation and electricity to these areas. What can be done to ensure that existing slums receive essential services and that the growth of cities is better regulated in the future? 

This is very interesting. A serious approach to slum upgrading starts with redesigning overall urban policy. It is a challenge for growing cities to handle increasing populations. Planners need to consider city enlargement with a realistic picture of their population growth. Then, instead of going straight to slum upgrading, we can start with basic city planning. If we do not plan in advance for enlargement, the expansion of cities will always follow unplanned growth and we will never catch up, and slums will continue to expand. We have 25 years of experience and methodology in slum upgrading, which includes opening public spaces, community participation, land ownership, etc., and where there has been political will to address slum upgrading it has succeeded. We have the know-how but without strong urban policy you are always behind the tide.

Many cities in developing countries lack basic infrastructure – water, sanitation, roads and transport networks, electricity and ICT – and their governments lack the resources needed to develop them. What role can and does the private sector play in this area and how can we ensure that its involvement benefits the urban population, especially the poor?

The private sector responds very well when there is a clear financial model and where there are clear risks, reliable legal structures and a certain level of financial security. If we are to rely on the private sector to provide services, we need to ensure that the basic infrastructure is in place to allow it to function and benefit. If we create favourable conditions for investment, the private sector is willing and ready to participate. 

“If we do not plan in advance for enlargement, the expansion of cities will always follow unplanned growth and we will never catch up, and slums will continue to expand… Where there has been a political will to address slum upgrading, it has succeeded” 

Civil society organisations are increasingly recognised as influential stakeholders in urban policy and practice. To what extent is this increased role and international funding compromising their independence and accountability to local communities? 

NGOs and voluntary stakeholders are considerable and well-perceived contributors to urbanisation. They often provide the link between communities and practitioners, ensuring that the work of organisations like UN-Habitat is better targeted to their needs, and we rely on them to carry out much of our work on the ground, often in very harsh conditions. Transparency is essential for everyone working in this field to ensure the genuinely sustainable development of our cities.

About the author:

Dr Joan Clos is Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).


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