Urbanization has been a remarkable phenomenon over the last few decades affecting millions of people and where problems emerge due to the rapid growth of population and its concentration in urban slum areas with high levels of congestion. This situation carries additional economic, social, and environmental costs and sustains the persistent poverty and inequality.
According to the World Migration Report 2015 by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), three million people migrate each week to urban areas, contributing greatly to the world’s urbanization. The 2014 revision of the World Urbanization Prospects by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs notes that “54 per cent percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050. Projections show that urbanization combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050, with close to 90 per cent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa.”
Following through from the Millennium Development Goals that finished in June 2015, one of the 17 global goals of the new Sustainable Development Agenda, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11, aims “to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” by 2030.
Improving the security and sustainability of cities means ensuring the access to safe and affordable housing and upgrading slum settlements. It also includes investing in public transport, creating green public areas so that it is inclusive. It implies as well building more socially inclusive cities that are more accessible in to the poorest, and are equitable and sensitive to gender concerns.
Having a resilient city implies preparing cities for change, for the management of adversity and resistance, and for taking action to reduce risks. Translating SDG 11 means increasing the capacity for local planning and the collaborative, integrated and sustainable management of human settlements.
Education for sustainable development and sustainable urbanization
UNESCO promotes Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) as a cross-cutting theme in all its sectors. ESD and sustainable urbanization involves “learning to live together sustainably in cities is one of the most important educational challenges of our time. This requires a focus on:
- Creating a quality learning and educational environment that promotes sustainability
- Providing lifelong learning opportunities in cities
- Teaching tolerance and mutual understanding in urban societies
- Enabling children and youth to learn to live and participate in urban life
- Enhancing learning to create inclusive societies in inclusive cities, and
- Developing learning in all its diverse forms.”
Edujesuit has stated that education is the backbone of development in the post-2015 agenda and building sustainable communities and lifestyles will require the role of education. This is the challenge for ESD.
Disasters and heavy urbanization
Many cities are located in high-risk areas, in floodplains, mouths of rivers, along coasts, and in fertile deltas formed by layers of sediments washed down from rivers and are therefore highly unstable. The Global Housing Strategy of UN Habitat acknowledges that “the unprecedented proliferation of slums and other informal settlements is the physical manifestation in cities of a chronic lack of adequate and affordable housing resulting from inadequate public urban policies. In 2013, over 860 million people were living in slums, up from 725 million in 2000.”
Urban poor communities settle in these areas as they have limited access to safer land and are thus highly exposed during extreme rainfall events. One of the primary targets of SDG 11 is to “significantly reduce the number of deaths and the number of people affected and substantially decrease the direct economic losses relative to global gross domestic product caused by disasters, including water-related disasters, with a focus on protecting the poor and people in vulnerable situations” by 2030.
In a 2013 commentary on science in context, Pedro Walpole SJ, research director of the Institute of Environmental Science for Social Change, a Jesuit research organization in the Philippines, shared that even “though vulnerable communities may show resilience, government and society must support them through better access to safe housing and in meeting basic needs.”
He further asks “how can we live the confrontation of marginal communities where there is a sustained lack of basic services and inclusion, reinforced by the ecological and social imbalances that the economy creates through logging, plantation, mining, or damming?”
The challenge of SDG 11, of sustainable cities
Citing the facts and figures from the SDG, “half of humanity or around 3.5 billion people lives in cities today and by 2030, almost 60 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas, with 95 per cent of urban expansion in the next decades taking place in the developing world. There are 828 million people living in slums and the number keeps rising.
“The world’s cities occupy just three per cent of the Earth’s land, but account for 60 to 80 per cent of energy consumption and 75 per cent of carbon emissions. Rapid urbanization is exerting pressure on fresh water supplies, sewage, the living environment, and public health, but the high density of cities can bring efficiency gains and technological innovation while reducing resource and energy consumption.”
There is a huge challenge for urban planners and decision-makers, along with the communities who live in cities, to overcome the common urban concerns of congestion, pollution, poor and ill-maintained drainage systems and other infrastructure, inadequate housing, waste management, and job provision, without exhausting the land, water, and other resources. There are also the consumption and consumerism practices that thrive in urban centers and where establishing what is enough and sufficient may be difficult to achieve.
Defining the future we want will include cities that enable the social and economic advancement of people and the sustainable and prudent use of resources and energy through innovations that reduce pollution and poverty.