“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
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 Agendawas 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.
The world’s population is becoming increasingly urban. Sometime in 2007 is usually reckoned to be the turning point when city dwellers formed the majority of the global population for the first time in history. Today, the trend toward urbanisation continues: as of 2014, it’s thought that 54% of the world’s population lives in cities – and it’s expected to reach 66% by 2050. Migration forms a significant, and often controversial, part of this urban population growth.
In fact, cities grow in three ways, which can be difficult to distinguish: through migration (whether it’s internal migration from rural to urban areas, or international migration between countries); the natural growth of the city’s population; and the reclassification of nearby non-urban districts. Although migration is only responsible for one share of this growth, it varies widely from country to country.
In some places, particularly in poorer countries, migration is the main driver of urbanisation. In 2009, UN Habitat estimated that 3m people were moving to cities every week. In global gateway cities such as Sydney, London and New York, migrants make up over a third of the population. The proportion in Brussels and Dubai is even greater, with migrants accounting for more than half of the population.
The 2015 World Migration Report (WMR) by the International Organisation for Migration argued that this mass movement of people is widely overlooked amid the global concern about urbanisation. And the report considers the widespread challenges, in terms of service provision, for the growing numbers of people moving into cities around the world.
Boon or burden?
Where the significance of migration to cities is recognised, it is widely seen as a problem. In 2013, a UN study of all 193 UN member states found that 80% had policies to reduce rural to urban migration. This figure has risen substantially in recent decades, up from only 38% in 1996. It is also more pronounced in poorer countries: 88% of the least developed countries reported policies to reduce migration to urban areas.
But this negative attitude towards migration to cities may well be mistaken. The WMR argues that problems of access to services – such as housing, sanitation, education or employment – that result from rural to urban migration, are not inevitable. Rather, they are caused by poor planning. Although all socio-economic classes are reflected in migration to cities, migrants from rural areas are disproportionately poor, and inadequate planning is often a result of a weak political will to support them.
Yet, as the report pointed out, migrants are especially motivated individuals. It is not only the sheer numbers of people involved that makes migration worthy of attention. All around the world, populations of cities are now more diverse than surrounding rural areas. In this way, migrants who come to cities can help diversify the networks that the city can draw upon. For instance, by linking cities to broader global networks. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Eastleigh in Nairobi. Known as “Little Mogadishu”, this neighbourhood has become a vibrant, global commercial hub, powered by enterprising members of the Somali, Ethiopian and Kenyan diasporas.
Changing with the times
So how are cities coping and changing with this influx of both internal and external migrants? While the vast majority of migration policies are set on a national basis, it is increasingly common for cities to develop their own approach to integrating people who come to settle.
For example, in the US, many cities support legislation calling for city police forces not to cooperate with certain forms of federal immigration control, which are deemed to be prejudiced against migrant groups. In 2012, the cities of Los Angeles and Chicago passed non-cooperation measures, and in 2014, New York City became the largest city to do so.
Yet much of the research into the impact of migrants on cities concerns international migrants in wealthier countries. A key contribution of the 2015 WMR has been to turn the focus of migration to cities in poorer countries. This migration is often shorter distance, from rural areas that are relatively close.
Rural to city migration is a much larger movement of people, at a global scale, and is accompanied by a very different set of issues. Adequate housing is probably the most significant of these. Although informal settlements exist all around the world, 97% of slum dwellers live in poor countries.
My own research in Sri Lanka has shown that poor households in urban areas are more likely to be headed by women, and household members are more likely to be employed than the city’s average – this indicates that unemployment is not a key issue. Rather, problems tend to arise as a result of poor planning and forced behaviour change – particularly forced relocation. These issues are exacerbated when informal settlements develop outside the administrative boundary of the city.
For instance, in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, as many as 60,000 people are being relocated due to redevelopment of under-served, informal areas of the city. The project I worked on examined the impact of violence on migrants in the city. Through the surveys conducted with groups of these relocated households, we witnessed the enormous contribution that local community and neighbourhood organisations can make to help those coping with forced relocation and the disintegration of migrant communities.
Migration to cities significantly contributes to urbanisation. And if well planned, migration can enhance the dynamism of cities making them healthier, more profitable and more interesting places to live.
Read more on urban migration: how Vietnamese migrants built a home in London and the impact of the British diaspora.