How will the next U.N. secretary-general address urbanization?

As the candidates continue to get pared down, we asked them for their views on cities and Habitat III.

Passengers ride into the city from the Kolkata suburbs, 2010. (Kibae Park/UN Photo)

The United Nations is currently in the hunt for a new leader, and this week marks the third “straw poll” in that process.

At the end of the year, U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will step down after two terms. The next person to hold what’s been called “the world’s most difficult job” will face a host of pressing challenges: a chaotic civil war in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State, territorial disputes between China and its neighbours, and scandals affecting U. N. peacekeeping missions in the Central African Republic, Haiti and elsewhere.

Another issue to juggle on an already full plate will be urbanization. In October, U. N. member states are set to agree on the New Urban Agenda, a roadmap for sustainable urbanization, at the Habitat III conference. How will the next secretary-general implement this agreement and engage more broadly on the urban dimension of development challenges such as poverty, health and climate change?

[See: The United Nations risks stifling its own progress on sustainable urbanization]

Citiscope asked this question of all 12 candidates for the position, two of whom have since dropped out of the race. While an informal system known as “regional rotation” suggests that it is Eastern Europe’s turn to provide the world’s top diplomat, this custom is not set in stone by the U. N. Charter — so in a sense, it remains anyone’s game. In addition, there are strong calls for the next secretary-general to be a woman, which would be a first in the organization’s 70-year history.

What follows are responses from four of the remaining 10 candidates. The campaigns of Vesna Pusić (Croatia) and Igor Lukšić (Montenegro) did respond, but they have since dropped out of the race and their responses are not included here.

In addition, the campaigns of Helen Clark (New Zealand, executive director of the U. N. Development Programme), António Guterres (Portugal, former U. N. High Commissioner for Refugees and former prime minister) and Susana Malcorra (Argentina, Minister of Foreign Affairs) were unable to provide responses by press time.

Finally, the campaigns of Natalia Gherman (Moldova, former foreign minister), Vuk Jeremić (Serbia, former foreign minister) and Srgjan Kerim (Macedonia, former foreign minister) did not return requests for comment.

Citiscope will publish an update to this story if and when additional candidates offer views on this issue. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.


Irina Bokova, Bulgaria

Director-General of UNESCO

The 21st century is considered to be the century of cities, with over half of humanity now living in urban areas — a figure that is estimated to increase to 66 percent by 2050. Cities are the core venues for economic, social and cultural development.

Moreover, as a large number of metropolises and intermediate cities are developing at an unprecedented rate, the recognition of the role of cities has increased enormously within the broader international development framework. I welcome the inclusion of a stand-alone goal on “sustainable cities and communities” in the 2030 Development Agenda and the subsequent Habitat III conference in October that is expected to result in the renewal of the global commitment to sustainable urbanization and an agreement on the New Urban Agenda.

I see the ongoing negotiations process of the New Urban Agenda as reflecting its importance and its multidimensional aspects. Some of the key issues it covers are the promotion of human rights and social justice, equitable urban development and inclusive urban growth, integration in the implementation of a new urbanization vision, empowerment of civil society, green cities and environmental sustainability, solutions that work for fragile cities, and a global data revolution for effective, results-based, implementation and monitoring.

[See: Cultural rights pushed as ‘key pillar’ of sustainable development]

Additionally, the issue of its implementation remains crucial, and the U. N. system would be well-placed to support governments and local authorities through its agencies’ respective comparative advantages and diverse expertise. I believe that an effective and efficient partnership of all U. N. agencies, with a specific role of the UN-Habitat, for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda would be a key factor supporting the national and local governments, working hand in hand with civil society, academia and private sector in building peaceful, inclusive and sustainable cities and communities.  In this respect, I am confident that the agreement in the outcome document will call for a respective U. N. role thereon.

Empowering city authorities — which are well-placed to respond to the needs of their inhabitants — should not be underestimated, and we have to ensure the U. N. system’s support to them as their responsibilities are progressively increasing.

As cities are home to people from different backgrounds, religions, ethnic groups, nationalities and with different lifestyles, I have always advocated for effective social inclusion. Despite the progress in recent years, many urban areas still harbour unemployment and engender poverty and inequalities. If we want to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, we have to address problems such as rising inequalities, discrimination and human rights violations. We witness such inequalities all around us — the inadequate housing conditions, the proliferation of slums, widespread homelessness and the persistence of forced evictions.

[See: The challenges of land and inclusion for the New Urban Agenda]

Therefore, I have welcomed the New Urban Agenda’s focus on inclusion. And in this regard, UNESCO has launched or further developed different initiatives in the social, economic and cultural fields of cities such as the Culture and Sustainable Urban Development Initiative or the International Coalition of Cities against Racism (ICCAR). We have to recognize culture as a key tool for promoting sustainable urban development encouraging both the safeguarding of cultural heritage and the promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions. The way cities develop definitively influences cultural heritage conservation and the distribution of cultural related benefits among different groups in society.

Finally, I am fully convinced that the New Urban Agenda is a unique opportunity for the entire international community, including state authorities at all levels, the U. N. system and the many other stakeholders to strengthen their commitment to the well-being and human rights of all inhabitants. Through inclusive participation of local authorities and citizens, we can advance and further develop the urbanization processes.


Christiana Figueres, Costa Rica

Former Executive Secretary of the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change

There is no doubt that rapid urbanization is one of the huge challenges of this century. It is going to occur mostly in developing countries — [urban residents] will grow to up to 80 percent of the world population, mostly in developing countries. We have to pay primary attention to urbanization. We cannot have the kind of urbanization that we have had in the past that responds more to buildings and cars and infrastructure than it does to human well-being.

We have to understand that cities are being built for humans and not for infrastructure. Infrastructure needs to be there at the service of humans. Infrastructure also needs to be put in place in a way that is a response to the impacts of climate change and that is actually low-emission. There is a huge, huge change in the urbanization view that we must follow now over the next few years, and it is very clear that this will have to be one of the challenges and priorities of the entire U. N. system across the board.


Miroslav Lajčák, Slovakia

Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Affairs

This conference is the largest global thematic U. N. conference in 2016. Since 1 July 2016, Slovakia has held the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. In this context, we have been coordinating the joint efforts and positions of the E. U. and its member states.

[See: The E. U. is a major voice in the Habitat III process. What is it saying?]

The next secretary-general will need to pay particular attention to the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, which should be fully consistent with the 2030 Agenda, and should have this agenda among his/her priorities. It will also be important to involve all relevant stakeholders, including local and regional authorities, civil society and the private sector.

We also have to take into consideration that more than half of humanity lives in urban areas today and that by 2050 the world urban population is expected to nearly double. This will pose further challenges in housing, infrastructure and basic services. They will need to be properly addressed, including through the implementation of commitments in the areas of sustainable housing and human settlements. The implementation of the New Urban Agenda will underpin the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, especially SDG 11 focusing on inclusive and safe cities and human settlements, as well as the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

This important agenda should, without any doubt, be among the priorities of the next U. N. secretary-general.


Danilo Türk, Slovenia

Former President

In his response, Mr. Turk wrote, “If appointed I would place high priority to sustainable urban development.” He then referred Citiscope to the foreword he wrote for a recent publication, a portion of which is excerpted here. Mr. Türk also mentioned that he attended Habitat II and “continue[s] to be impressed by the quality of inputs into the Habitat Conferences.”

In his forward, “Greening the Urban Living”, he writes: Cities are important engines of economic growth and technological, social and political transformations. Their creative roles are historically established. Moreover, in our globalized world, cities are playing an increasingly important role in all the major issues of global development.

Let us think about a few basic facts and figures: According to the United Nations, cities represent about one half of the global population. Their growth is accelerating in all parts of the planet. And they are growing fast. Twenty years ago, 45,1 per cent of global population lived in urban areas. This year, in 2016, their share is expected to grow to 54,5 per cent. And the trend will continue.

The relative weight of cities is even greater. Today, cities account for 70 per cent of global GDP and 60 per cent of global use of energy.

However, cities also produce 70 per cent of all global green house gas emissions and 70 per cent of waste.

No wonder therefore that cities are understood today as key to development and as a places where some of the most pressing development issues need to be resolved. Today it is globally recognized that urbanization as such is an endogenous source of development. The future world will be an urban world.

[See: The New Urban Agenda will pay for itself]

New urban models will have to be designed to address the most urgent problems of the world such as the problem of climate change, sustainable use of water resources and others. National policies are necessary and will help. But it will be in the cities themselves where new models of organization of manufacturing, new technologies for sustainable use of energy, new patterns of transport, and all other aspects of development will have to be invented. Urban innovation should be the main guarantee for effective solutions to the problems of climate change.

And above all, urban development must show the way to greater social integration, equity and fairness. Far too many people today live in slums or in slum like settlements. This will have to change. And change will mostly depend on ingenuity, skills and energetic policy making and leadership in the cities.

Note: This story has been updated to correct Igor Lukšić’s nationality.

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