Officials Discuss Sustainable Urbanization at United Nations

Event: Conference on SUSTAINABLE URBANIZATION IN THE INFORMATION AGE: Role of Infrastructure in Metropolitan Development
Location: United Nations Headquarters, 05.13.09
Speakers: For full list of speakers, click here
Organizers: The United Nations Human Settlements Programme; Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies and Development (GAID); AIA NY Chapter; Regional Plan Association
Sponsors: The Building and Social Housing Foundation; Forum for Urban Design; Novartis Corporation; The Levin Graduate Institute

The second edition of the Conference on Sustainable Urbanization in the Information Age: The Role of Infrastructure in Metropolis Development, once again created a forum for a dialogue both among nations and between public and private spheres to achieve a more sustainable future.

Speakers from all corners of the world not only addressed the problems of rapid urbanization, but also attempted to vindicate the urban condition: “Urban centers are the ticking hearts of civilization” was the opening remark of Sarbuland Khan, executive coordinator of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Division for Public Administration and Development Management Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies and Development (UN DESA DPADM GAID). This was later stressed by Alexandros Washburn, AIA, chief urban designer for the NYC Department of City Planning, in quoting Aristotle: “In a village you can live, but in a city you live well.” AIANY Executive Director Rick Bell, FAIA, added, “Living well is the only sustainability.”

Keynote speaker Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, UN Under-Secretary General and executive director of the UN Human Settlements Programme, noted that the common ground among those present is the way their cities are managed and infrastructure is built. In these times when infrastructure is supposed to save the world from the falling economy, she urged cities to consider this an opportunity to install sustainability principles in infrastructure development processes. “The challenge,” she said, “is to integrate economic, environmental, and social policies to make our cities economically more competitive, ecologically more sustainable, and socially more inclusive and gender responsive…. We need local action if we are going to achieve global goals.”


Officials Discuss Sustainable Urbanization at United Nations (Cont’d)

The speakers’ underlying assumption throughout was that rapid growth was coming whether we wanted it or not, and that dense city dwelling reduces our ecological footprint — provided the integration of affordable housing and an efficient public transportation network. (There is a reason why NYC has a small ecological footprint, and would be even less if it were not for New Yorkers’ addiction to flying.)

The call to seek the benefits of urbanization while mitigating its disadvantages was made by Cheick Sidi Diarra, UN Under-Secretary-General and high representative for the Least Developing Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries, and Small Island Developing States. He noted that poor planning enhances natural disasters and the required action must go beyond upgrading slums through comprehensive urban planning.

Some of the common problems that were identified by speakers like Roberto Villareal, chief of the development management branch of the UN Division for Public Administration & Development Management, and Peter Woods, Secretary General of United Cities and Local Governments, Asia Pacific, included the need to de-bureaucratize the systems to actually allow some field of action. Overregulation and governance conflicts between national and sub-national authorities are restricting technological innovation, the need for civic engagement, and the reinforcement of public/private partnerships. The slow uptake of innovative techniques and absence of relevant skills, along with financial restrictions and the eagerness to reactivate the economy, is leading to poor and irresponsible planning.

Despite NJ Institute of Technology Dean of the School of Architecture Urs Gauchat, AIA’s gloomy note reminding us we are witnessing how daunting science fiction predictions of the past are becoming a reality (exemplified by George Orwell’s Big Brother), there was room for hope in the examples that are being implemented globally, including those that link water supply, public health, affordable housing, and physical development.

Tibaijuka mentioned Eco-efficient and Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Development in Asia and Latin America, a project promoting eco-efficiency as key criterion for sustainable infrastructure development and as a basis to expanding infrastructure financing opportunities, being developed in partnership with the UN regional commissions of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). H.E. Tina Intelmann, the permanent representative of Estonia, presented the re-thinking of urban planning in her country, where they are paying attention to energy savings, improving computer literacy, using technology to help enhance sustainability, and reducing the use of paper for elections, healthcare, and education, among others.

Professor Lyndsay Neilson, director of urban planning in Melbourne, presented Melbourne 2030, with a plan characterized by carefully delineated urban growth boundaries. James Vine, head of UK Housing Policy and Practice for the Building and Social Housing Foundation, spoke about the UK’s environmental commitments to reduce carbon emissions 60% by 2050. Summarized in the “code for sustainable homes” and eco-town proposals, one of the main requirements is that 50% of the commutes be made by foot, bicycle, or public transport. Another plan proposes that every home be sited within 800 meters of a primary school.

Washburn spoke of how the implementation of the 153 ideas in PlaNYC can lead to our ability to “live well.” The private sector also had its say: Patrick Lobdell, AIA, an architect at pharmaceutical leader Novartis, who announced the firm’s goals to achieve 10% energy reduction and lessen carbon dioxide and landfill waste.

There is much to be done and unprecedented challenges require unmatched measures. The first step is to start the dialogue and to re-think priorities.