By Paola Totaro
QUITO, Ecuador (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Urban planning has failed to keep up with mass urbanization around the world, placing cities at the epicenter of the 21st century's most pressing challenges, a top United Nations official said on Monday.
The vulnerability of urban habitats, amid the accelerating pace of climate change and population growth, points to an unsustainable future if urgent action is not taken, Peter Thomson, president of the U.N General Assembly, said in Quito, Ecuador at the U.N Habitat III conference.
"Mass urbanization is underway around the globe and, along with the effects of climate change and the lack of peace in so many parts of the world, the movement of people is the great challenge of the 21st century," Thomson told the conference on housing and sustainable urban development.
One billion people live in urban slums where they lack access to basic services such as water, sanitation and energy, he said.
"Seventy-five percent of our cities have higher levels of income inequality today than in 1996, and 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and global waste, originate from cities," he said.
Thomson's remarks on the first official day of the conference were echoed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said increasing numbers of poor and vulnerable people were living in precarious conditions in cities and informal settlements.
He said urban areas are expanding rapidly, especially in developing countries, but are "frequently unplanned."
Access to basic services and adequate living space, isolation from jobs, vulnerability to crime, forced evictions and homelessness highlight an urgent need for better planning, he said.
"Transforming our world for the better means transforming our towns and cities. That means better urban governance, planning and design, investment in affordable housing and infrastructure and basic services," he said.
More than 45,000 people, including academics, planning specialists, government officials and U.N. leaders, have converged on the Andean city of Quito to discuss the future of the world's cities.
Held once every 20 years, the Habitat conference comes at a point when for the first time in history more people live in cities than in rural areas.
An estimated 140 of the U.N's 193 member states registered for the conference and are expected to adopt a new non-binding agreement to guide city growth.
Known as the New Urban Agenda (NUA), the 23-page document aims to steer the growth of cities, towns and informal settlements so that they are sustainable, do not destroy the environment and protect the rights of the vulnerable.
Thomson said implementation of the NUA would be monitored and he would convene a formal review next year, interpreted to be a response to some experts who criticized the proposed policy for not containing targets or deadlines for action.
(Reporting by Paola Totaro, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)