Urban Challenges in the 21st Century

The United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-HABITAT, is tasked with promoting “socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all.” The agency’s new executive director, former Barcelona mayor Joan Clos, gave his first formal address to the UN General Assembly and outlined some of the priorities for improving settlements in the coming the years.

Clos started with some good news: between 2000 and 2010, the lives of 230 million slum dwellers were improved – an achievement that exceeds the Millennium Development Goal target of improving the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers. Improvements are in the areas of water and sanitation as well as durable, less-crowded housing. Despite these gains, the size of the global slum population continues to grow, and Clos suggests that a new framework is needed for the efforts. Clos promised that UN-HABITAT will continue to prioritize several core activities:

  • promoting sustainable urbanization;
  • slum prevention and upgrading through effective land and housing policies;
  • improving access to drinking water and sanitation;
  • promoting effective and sustainable financing of cities;
  • mainstreaming gender and promoting partnerships; and
  • promoting global awareness of urban conditions and trends through evidence based global monitoring.

He also intends to focus on the role of cities in mitigation and adaptation to climate change. With their concentrated populations, cities in developed countries are large contributors to greenhouse-gas emissions, but their concentration also creates opportunities for efficient energy use. Floods and other disasters that are becoming more common with global climate disruption pose a particular hazard to urban slums, so adaptations will be important in these areas.

For those interested in reading more about the challenges and opportunities of the world’s cities, State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011 – Cities for All: Bridging the Urban Divide is available for downloading at the UN-HABITAT website.

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