Perspectives on Research for Sustainable  Urbanization

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By Dr. Don Okpala, Guest contributo

Introduction

Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable –to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. – (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987:8).

The departure point of research for sustainable  urbanization can be  said to derive from and reflect the twin focal themes of the Habitat Agenda – viz “Adequate Shelter for all” and “Sustainable human settlements development in an urbanizing world”, subsequently affected/influenced by climate change phenomenon in recent years.

Research on Sustainable urbanization expects to involve a comprehensive system of  collection, collation, analysis and inferences therefrom, documentation and global dissemination of data/statistics and substantive information on empirically researched  urban settlements  related issues.  The pertinent issues  include housing (shelter), spatial planning of cities and upgrading of unplanned/slum areas and their conditions, existing  or emerging regional or global human settlements trends, including the dynamics of rural-urban inter-relationships as well as the underlying macroeconomic factors influencing urbanization.  It also involves the promotion of vigorous exchange of ideas and information on the urbanization phenomenon with appropriate partners  and development actors, as well as mainstreaming innovative policies and strategies based on  lessons learned from successful practices.  Such research is generally aimed at improving the understanding of  and knowledge on urban conditions in an increasingly globalizing  and urbanizing world;  evaluating the efficacy of past and current urban  policies and strategies and monitoring  urban conditions and trends.

The Habitat Agenda  (1996), which embodies the series of commitments, undertakings and recommendations collectively made by the World Community of Nations to improve the living conditions of their peoples in an increasingly urbanizing world, which has subsequently been updated  and enhanced by the Millennium Development Declaration and  Goals (MDGs 2000), the Declaration on Cities and other Human Settlements in the New Millennium (2001), the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)  and the resulting Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (2002); form the main springboard and  purpose of research on sustainable  urbanization.  

Objective and Goal of Research on Sustainable Urbanization 

Reduction of urban poverty and improvement of the quality of life of the  people is the ultimate driving force and goal of such research. As had been underlined by the HABITAT AGENDA

“The quality of life of all people, depends among other economic, social, cultural and  environmental factors, on the physical conditions and spatial characteristics of our villages, towns and cities.  City layouts and aesthetics, land-use patterns, population, architecture and building densities, transportation and ease of access for all to the basic goods, services and public  amenities, have a crucial bearing on the liveability of settlements” (both urban and rural) – (Habitat Agenda, 1997 Paras 17-18

This situation can only be realized through well-thought out urban human settlements planning, implementation, and management of cities and other settlements sizes and scales.

Research on sustainable urbanization also  envisages active and continuing development of tools and techniques for monitoring and assessing the state of  urban human settlements and the  state of implementation of the Habitat Agenda goals and relevant targets of the Millennium Development Goals.

Continued research efforts at exploring how to make the outcome and recommendations of the landmark international Conferences and summits of the past decades,  namely:  the Istanbul Summit and the Habitat Agenda, the Millennium Development Summit and its Goals and Targets and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (WSSD) more effectively reflect on the population at large is the expectation of  the international community on research for sustainable urban development.  Monitoring and assessing the extent to which these desirable outcomes are being realized at the local level is a very important goal of research on sustainable urban development.

Currently,  many developing countries towns and cities are not adequately planned, and where any plans exist, they are hardly implemented as planned.  This  results in typically  fragmented and disparate urban systems  and structures which, as Dewar (1995) had noted,

“……generate enormous amounts of movements at great temporal and monetary cost to the individuals and    societies alike and massively aggravate the main developmental issues of poverty, unemployment and inequality ……The sprawling discontinuous pattern makes efficient and viable public transport impossible, they waste scarce resources such as land, energy and finance to the degree that the urban settlements are becoming financially non-sustainable, and they are resulting in extensive environmental degradation in terms of landscape, vegetation, water,  air and noise”.

The massive and destructive flooding of cities and towns in various countries of the developing  world is attributable to inadequate planning of cities or ineffective implementation and enforcement of the plans where they exist.

Critical  areas/issues on Sustainable Urbanization

For a city to be liveable, productive and sustainable, there must be a competent and responsible authority or institution  to plan, manage, maintain and care for  its complex infrastructures and their  functionality (The Guardian Newspaper Editorial (Nigeria, 2008:14). The African Development Bank (AFDB 2005:13) had also noted that, “ a common

feature still facing almost every town and city in Africa is that of limited or weak institutional capacity for managing urban development in an  efficient, effective and sustainable manner”, and that such institutional weaknesses, “inevitably tend to expose city plans to distortion by popular builders” anf even by  some professional developers.

Most of the relevant critical issues seem to have been captured in CSU’s draft strategic plan, though the  scope and timing of some may still require more rigorous re-evaluation.

(a)  Planning instrument and process

Research on sustainable urbanization is envisaged, among others, to focus on developing a model city  spatial system that internalizes the above negative externalities and minimizes the health, financial and other social costs to the system. Research for sustainable human  settlements development management including sustainable urbanization envisages therefore  the promotion of settlements planning processes that increase the efficient working of the urban economy, provide good quality residential environments in attractive settings, enhance the quality of urban society,  provide efficient systems for the movement of people and goods and protect and enhance natural landscapes and protect and guard the environment.   The  importance of adequate planning of cities, towns and villages cannot be overemphasized.

As has been rightly underlined by the United Nations “The future price to be paid for unplanned settlements development in developing countries is such that settlements planning is not an option but an imperative for decades ahead”

Sustainable urban development is not possible  without adequate planning and dedicated/committed implementation of such urban plans.

(b) Housing/Shelter in Sustainable urban development research

Research on sustainable urbanization  has to address the issue of housing not only from the perspective of its physical and environmental location, but also in relation to associated housing services – viz: access to water supplies,  power/electricity, access to sanitation services including sewage and drainage services/facilities.  Research on this issue is also expected to address issues of housing supply and delivery systems, including building/construction materials and building codes, regulations and standards,  housing  tenure (rental and owner-occupier), housing economics, including affordability for various socio-economic segments of the population, and of course the supply, availability and access to finance or credit (mortgage) for housing.

(c) Sustainable Urban economic development

Research on sustainable  urbanization is also envisaged to focus on developing and promoting overall urban  economic development, the dynamics and inter-relationships of the urban economy, including the dynamics of the informal economy, how the urban economy affects and is affected by the quality of local, national, regional and international economic policy management, urban employment creation, income enhancement and poverty alleviation. These could be accomplished through analysis,  projections, documentation and dissemination of good and effective practices, advisory services and capacity building. 

(d) Regulatory Mechanisms and by-laws for effective sustainable urbanization management

Research for sustainable urbanization development is also envisaged to focus on developing enabling regulatory regimes for promoting  greater urban economic investments, through among other things, review, updating and modernization of city  by-laws and regulations, and developing financial and credit mechanisms, including microcredit and microenterprise mechanisms, that make financing more available and easily accessible to small and medium-scale entrepreneurs for incubating investments in both housing and other income generation activities.

(e)  Urban Poverty

The increasing incidence  of poverty has led to the adoption of poverty reduction as a top priority in the international development agenda and the proclamation by the United Nations of 1997-2006 as the International Decade for the Eradication of Poverty. Widespread  poverty remains the core obstacle to sustainable development in general and to urban development in particular.  Key commitments of the Habitat Agenda (paragraphs 115-124 and 155-162) include eradication of urban poverty and creation of productive employment and social integration.  The Millennium Declaration set the target of reducing by 50  per cent the proportion of the world’s people whose income is less than one US dollar per day by the year 2015 and to improve significantly the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by the year 2020.   It is apparent that existing knowledge on issues surrounding urban poverty is not  adequate.  Experience of working with governments, whether in the context of inter-governmental negotiations or technical cooperation, and a review of the results of recent research have revealed substantive knowledge gaps,  including lack of adequate information on the very basic issue of the magnitude and relative importance of urban poverty.  Research for sustainable urbanization is envisaged to fill these gaps in knowledge.

(f) Financing Sustainable Urbanization development

In many cities and towns,  poor and deteriorating infrastructure  and services, including unreliable electric power supplies and  water supplies, poor storm water drainage systems, pot-holed roads, chaotic public transport system and mounting garbage heaps are manifestations  of weak municipal finance systems  –  inadequate revenue bases, poor revenue collection mechanisms, excessive reliance on central government allocations which are often erratic  and unreliable, mismanagemment of available financial resources and poor maintenance culture, etc.   The research challenge here is to develop mechanisms for sustainable financing of development and maintenance of city-wide municipal infrastructure and services.

(g) City size/scales and sustainable urban development

While appreciating the importance, influence and contributions of Megalopolises (Cities of over 10 million populations) as well as those of the large metropolises  (population of 5-10 million), greater research attention than hitherto is envisaged  to be directed at the small and intermediate-sized towns and cities.  These scale/size cities perform very important functions in human settlements, particularly in spreading the benefits of urbanization.  A large proportion of  the World urban population currently lives in small and medium-sized towns and these are becoming more  and more numerous.  These relatively small and medium-sized towns link globalised areas and urban and national areas;  and they represent important communications nodes.

(i) Good Governance and sustainable urbanization.

In this context, participatory, transparent and accountable urban governance is a focal area of international organizations with regard to research for sustainable urbanization.   Good  urban governance is increasingly viewed as a   necessary condition for sustainable urbanization. In adopting the Habitat Agenda, Heads of State and Governments of countries acknowledged the  importance of good governance  by  committing themselves to fostering transparent, responsible, accountable, just, effective and efficient  governance of towns, cities and metropolitan areas.      Promoting good urban governance is also one of the strategies identified by the UN Secretary General’s Road Map for the Implementation of the United Nations  Millennium Declaration.  

(h) Decentralization in Sustainable urban development

One  of the most important dimensions of good urban governance is decentralization, especially devolution of responsibilities and financial resources to local authorities.  Decentralization is one of the key commitments of the Habitat Agenda (paragraph 45c), which also places emphasis on strengthening local authorities and their associations (paragraph 180). The principle of subsidiarity which enjoins  that decisions should  be made and services provided at the lowest possible level that is technically most cost-effective, without creating too many over-spill effects is a cardinal objective of decentralization. Decentralization, or subsidiarity, alongside efficiency, equity, transparency, civic engagement and citizenship, is at the core of the Global Campaign on Urban Governance. The political and administrative advantages and limitations of decentralization are well-known, but what is not so well known are the demonstrable impacts of decentralization on effective  urban development management. Empirical research on the impacts of decentralization policies and strategies is clearly necessary so as to demonstrate and show-case their advantages more concretely. 

Conclusion

The success of research for sustainable  urbanization  will be gauged by the extent to which such research contributes or translates into significant improvements in the conditions and quality of life of the population at the local levels.

The above  areas of envisaged research attention are, of course,   by no means exhaustive.   It bears underlining however, that all research  on and  for sustainable urbanization are envisaged to bring about  changes in behaviour and approach on the part of  individuals, institutions and  other relevant  development actors which should translate into improvement in the welfare and quality of life of the population at the local level.


About the author: Dr. Don Okpala  was formerly Director of the Monitoring and Research Division of UN-Habitat in Nairobi, Kenya.  Before joining the UN in 1983, Dr. Okpala was a Senior Research Fellow at the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research (N.I.S.E.R.).  He served as  consultant  coordinator to the World Bank  in  the Bank’s  Nigerian Urban Priorities  Study (1982-1983).  

Dr. Okpala  was awarded the Fulbright Senior Research Scholar Fellowship in 1983, at the Ohio State University, in Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A. Throughout his career, he has provided urban planning advisory services to several countries and organizations. He has been involved in urban development planning practice, research, training and capacity-building both within and outside Nigeria and has written and published extensively.

Dr Okpala holds a B.A. Hons Degree in Geography from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria (1971); a Masters Degree in Regional Planning from  Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A (1974) and a Ph.D. in Urban Studies and Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.(1977). He is a member of a number of  social clubs and charitable organizations, including Rotary International.


References

1. World Commission on Environment and Development (The Brundtland Report) 1987.

2. U.N (Habitat) 1997: The Istanbul Declaration and the Habitat Agenda, 1996. (Nairobi, Kenya)

3. UN(Habitat) 1997: op cit  para 17 -18.4. Dewar, David (1995):  “The Urban Question in South Africa:  The Need for a planning Paradigm Shift”  (Third World Planning Review, Vol.17 No.4,1995,P.411).

5. Hall, P.  and  Pfeiffer, U (2000:289).  Urban Future 21: Global Agenda for Twenty-First Century Cities.

6. United Nations (1990): Programme 22: Human Settlements: Proposed Medium Term Plan for the Period 1992-1997. (Doc/A/45/6, (New York).

7. Josep Maria Llop Torne  (2005): “An Urban Planet: from the Megalopolis to intermediary Urban networks” (Paper presented at the 49th World Congress of the International Federation for Housing and Planning (IFHP), Rome 2-5October,2005).

8. Ibid

9. Hall, P & Pfeiffer, U (2000): Urban Futures 21:  Global Agenda for the Twenty-First Century Cities (p.165). (London, E & FN SPON).

10. United Nations (2001) Declaration on Cities and other Human Settlements in the New Millennium, (para 50), New York.