World Cities Day: Towards International Sustainable City Planning

“Cities are increasingly the home of humanity. They are central to climate action, global prosperity, peace and human rights.” — UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon

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When most people consider the date of October 31, they think of Halloween – but there’s more to it than pumpkins and costumes. In 2013, the United Nations designated the same day as World Cities Day to celebrate and promote global urbanization and address the challenges associated with it. Today, more than 50% of the world’s population are urban-dwellers, with the expectation that the number will grow to 70% by 2050. Each year, World Cities Day is celebrated under the general theme of “Better City, Better Life,” but this year’s added sub-theme – “Inclusive Cities, Shared Development” – is being observed on a global stage in Quito, Ecuador in regards to the conclusion of the recent Habitat III conference.

Through its global outreach, the U.N. promotes the importance of good urban planning practices in cities around the world, especially in countries experiencing rapid population and economic growth. There is also marked diversity in this growth: half of urban dwellers live in small urban settlements (less than 500,000 people), while roughly one in eight live in “mega-cities” (of 10 million or more people). The U.N. lists “unplanned city extensions” and “decades of car-centric urban design” as reasons for complicated urban sprawl and community disconnection.

World Cities Day concludes a month of similar worldwide events known as Urban October: 31 days of promoting a better future. An initiative of UN-Habitat, the idea of Urban October is to raise global awareness about sustainable cities, and invite cities in all six continents to plan events that aim to bring people together for a “better urban future.” The international month-long celebrations include Urban Walks, Urban Talks and Urban Nights, including outdoor community screenings. However, the biggest of all the events that took place during October is Habitat III: a United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development which just happened in Quito from the 17-20.

A New Urban Agenda was successfully adopted at this conference, after a grueling 38 hours of government negotiations at the UN in September. The important document serves as an “an action-oriented document which will set global standards of achievement in sustainable urban development, rethinking the way we build, manage, and live in cities” through stakeholder cooperation. The New Urban Agenda aims to “rethink” traditional ideas of urbanization, and embrace more appropriate policies for building and managing sustainable settlements. As a result, governments around the globe have committed to fostering more sustainable urban growth and will work with policymakers in urban areas to create specific laws and policies that align with the New Urban Agenda and SDG 11.

One of most important principles outlined in this conference document is one with a particular focus on urban planning and design, and a strategic emphasis on social wellbeing, community and connectedness:

“We will support the provision of well-designed networks of safe, inclusive for all inhabitants, accessible, green, and quality public spaces and streets, free from crime and violence, including sexual harassment and gender-based violence, considering the humanscale and measures that allow for the best possible commercial use of street-level floors, fostering local markets and commerce, both formal and informal, as well as not-for-profit community initiatives, bringing people into the public spaces, promoting walkability and cycling towards improving health and well-being.”

The importance of the New Urban Agenda — and the work of the Habitat III conference — is highlighted on their website with a bright, pop-up message reading “thank you for being part of this historic event!” History was indeed made when governments committed to fostering long-term sustainable city planning and promoting resilient urban communities. The end product is what Ecuador’s UN First Secretary, Estaban Cadeña, calls a “milestone of what we’re trying to achieve in multilateralism.” In addition to the adopted agenda, the conference also announced new sources for city development assistance to help with housing and shelter shortages.

Habitat III truly brought the meaning of the subtheme of World Cities Day – Inclusive Cities, Shared Development – to life with their focus on a better urban planning and greater social connectedness for all urban dwellers. With a day, and even month, devoted to urban development awareness each year, governments around the world can never disregard the need for international dialogue on cities and their undeniable sustainable potential.