Equitable access to services is key to moving forward the New Urban Agenda

Progress on implementing the Habitat III strategy can be driven by equitable access to five basic services — land, housing, water, energy and transport, a think tank says.

Narit Jindajamorn / Shutterstock.com

QUITO, Ecuador — With Africa and Asia estimated to see 90 percent of the world’s new urban growth between now and 2050, experts are forecasting an urbanization of global poverty — a growing number of urban poor households who lack access to services and opportunities in cities. That’s a key challenge that must be addressed for urban sustainability to happen, experts here are warning.

Equitable access to quality services is “an entry point to improve the economy and environment of cities worldwide, especially in emerging and struggling cities in Asia and Africa, which will face the greatest change from urbanization challenges and opportunities,” said Victoria Beard, research director at the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

A new model for sustainable urban development, Beard says, would see movement away from the traditional development triangle model of what she calls the “3 E’s”, where economy sits as the top priority, with concerns around ecology and equity issues at the bottom.

That’s a tall order, perhaps. But there is enthusiasm here this week that researchers and advocates have the unique attention of world leaders on such issues. Beard and others were releasing a new report making these recommendations on the eve of the Habitat III conference on urbanization, the one time every 20 years that governments and urbanists of all kind come together to discuss the world’s cities.

The heart of this week’s events will be the adoption by 193 countries of a new global vision on how to plan and build sustainable and equitable cities — a strategy document called the New Urban Agenda. Beard says that moving forward on a path of sustainability under the New Urban Agenda can now be driven by equitable access to five basic services — land, housing, water, energy and transport.

Governance, financing, planning

The report provides two preliminary case studies. Years ago, Medellín, in Colombia, was a violence-wracked city that since has become a booming economy, in part thanks to a series of high-visibility urban interventions. And Surat, in western India, experienced an epidemic of plague that was halted by a key change in the local health system — and eventually triggered an urban transformation.

[Read: How Surat became India’s public health leader — and stayed that way]

What lessons can be drawn from these disparate examples? Implementing equitable access to quality services will require a trio of strong governance, adequate financing, and urban planning and management, according to the report. Further, city leaders need to play a vital role in nudging their communities toward inclusive growth.

“Moving towards equal, sustainable cities is a core part of the New Urban Agenda. The needed shift to promoting equitable access to quality services will serve as a backbone and development framework for our future cities,” said Ani Dasgupta, global director of WRI’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

“Inevitably”, he added, “cities have to grow and to provide good jobs for many people means giving access to services to help get them out of poverty.”

Still, Dasgupta and his colleagues are keen to note that the lessons from Medellin, Surat and other places are all replicable in other cities. Rather, these and other case studies are being presented to show “good practices that other places can draw insights from — not necessarily replicate, but to see,” he said.

[Read: How Medellin revived itself]

Nonetheless, common goals can play a critical role in guiding local policymaking. That includes aligning local priorities with national and international frameworks, such as the New Urban Agenda as well as the two primary international development agreements struck last year — the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Dasgupta noted that doing so also allows a city to tap into global network of partners to share lessons and experiences, including policies and programmes that did not work out.

From basics to commitment

Lack of access to quality, affordable and reliable services affects all income brackets, of course. But such obstacles particularly impact on low-income groups, who typically end up paying more for the services.

In Bangalore, India, households at the city’s fringes lack access to municipal water. Thus, they end up paying 10 times more than the average municipal rate for lower-quality water supplied by tankers, according to the WRI report. Worldwide, some 140 million people live without access to improved water sources — a figure that has direct economic implications for any country.

That’s not just a rights issue; it’s also a serious productivity consideration. The World Bank estimates that a 0.3 percent increase in investment in water infrastructure could lead can lead to a 1 percent increase in gross domestic product, as well as significant time savings for women in particular.

[Read: How Durban set the global standard for providing water and sanitation for the poor]

Such investments typically take significant time and energy, however, particularly for elected officials who may cycle in and out of office. Sustainability planning may increasingly become a significant incentive in this regard. One way to get more mayors thinking in the long term, Beard noted, is to “raise their awareness that a city can get more incentives from both private-sector and international organizations to come in, because they are on the right path towards sustainability.”

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