A couple of weeks ago, a conference by the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF) under the title ‘Fit for the future: resources and capacity for effective local government’, was held in Malta. I attended the conference as presi­dent of the Commonwealth Association of Architects (CAA).

The conference focused on capacity building by local governments and opportunities that exist for them to take up and manage funds in order to carry out pro­jects within their communities. Mention was also made of the need to take into consideration the rate of growth of the Commonwealth population. This brought into focus the ever growing rate of Commonwealth citizens living in urban areas.

Forecasts published in the pre-conference paper indicate that “the number of urban dwellers in the Commonwealth is projected to grow from 879 million today to 1.3 billion by 2030, with the highest growth in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh”. This growth, together with climate change and ensuring sustainable development, present significant challenges.

Are we ready to face the challenge of this exponential growth?

One way is to place the issue of ‘urbanisation’ on the platform of global agendas. The CAA is currently working with the Commonwealth Association of Planners (CAP) and the CLGF to advocate for the inclusion of ‘Urbanisation’ on the CHOGM 2018 agenda. The cross-cutting issue of ‘urbanisation’ is also directly relevant to the summit’s overarching theme ‘To­wards a Common future’. It is also in line with our commitment to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New Urban Agenda.

The summit is calling for a new approach in creating a more sustainable and prosperous future.

While ‘urbanisation’ has featured prominently in previous CHOGM agendas it is clear that much remains to be done. Opportunities for capturing the social, economic and environmental benefits from the growth of cities will only be realised and risks avoided with robust planning and investment.

Statistics published by the United Nations show that today, cities occupy only two per cent of the total land area, yet are responsible for 70 per cent of global GDP, 60 per cent of global energy consumption, 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and 70 per cent of global waste.

Commonwealth’s unique character

While urbanisation is a global phenomenon, the diversity of the Commonwealth creates a unique set of challenges and opportunities.

The first challenge is that many countries in the Commonwealth, particularly in the Pacific and Caribbean regions, are small island developing States. These are particularly vulnerable to climate change and other impacts due to their small size, fragile economies and lack of resilience in the face of natural disasters such as cyclones, earthquakes and extreme weather conditions.

Urbanisation can improve the quality of life for some of the poorest people in the Commonwealth

There is also the unprecedented population growth. The UN’s Department for Economic and Social Affairs predicts that the world’s urban population will in­crease by 2.5 billion by 2050. Nearly 90 per cent of this increase will be concentrated in Asia and Africa, and with much of that growth happening in Commonwealth countries. India alone is predicted to add 404 million dwellers, and Nigeria 212 million over this period.

The high rate of urbanisation anticipated in some of the Commonwealth’s most fragile States (i.e. vulnerability to conflict or collapse) is also another challenge. Sixteen Commonwealth countries are urbanising at a rate of between three to five per cent per annum as compared, for example, to the 0.5 per cent of the UK and 0.32 per cent of Malta.

The opportunities of urbanisation

There is an opportunity to use urbanisation to promote prosperity in some of the Commonwealth’s poorest countries. Thirteen of the 16 Commonwealth countries that are urbanising most rapidly are classified as either ‘low’ or ‘low-middle’ income countries by the World Bank.

Several of the countries with the highest rates of urbanisation are home to Commonwealth cities which score poorly on the UN’s City Prosperity Index (CPI), namely Accra (40/100), Cape Town (42/100), Johannesburg (42/100), Lagos (38/100) and Dhaka (0/100). For comparison, London scores 64/100.

Urbanisation can improve the quality of life for some of the poorest people in the Commonwealth. The five Commonwealth countries with the lowest Human Development Index (HDI) are Sierra Leone (0.413), Mozambique (0.416), Malawi (0.445), Uganda (0.483) and Rwanda (0.483), all of which are in Africa.

Engaging young people in the creation of their future cities is also an opportunity. The Commonwealth has a combined population of more than two billion. More than 60 per cent are under 30 years of age, and most live in cities. These young people are an asset to a country’s development. They should be empowered to realise their potential as they have a proven capability to lead change, and are a vital and valuable investment for the future.

Urbanisation can be key to strengthening the resilience of cities, especially in those parts of the Commonwealth which are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. High rates of urbanisation are anticipated in parts of the Commonwealth that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts.

The five Commonwealth countries with the most vulnerable Climate Risk Indexes (CRI) are: Bangladesh (25), Pakistan (30.5), India (37.5), Grenada (40.33) and Dominica (42).

Working together

Only by working collaboratively and in partnership will we be able to manage the challenges and opportunities created by the growth of cities. CHOGM 2018 provides an exceptionally powerful and timely opportunity to bring together a diverse range of stakeholders. Government and civil society need to focus on the role of cities to help create a more sustainable, fairer, secure and prosperous future.

The CAA is keen to work with other Commonwealth organisations to convene around the topic of ‘urbanisation’. Engagement at the forums taking place at CHOGM (Peoples, Business, Women’s and Youth) present another opportunity to build coalitions around a range of topics including: Rapid Urbanisation, Resilience and Climate Change, Governance and Inclusion (especially in terms of gender and youth), and Local Economic Development, helping to ensure our collective ability to deliver the UN’s SDGs.

We are also keen to ensure that the importance of ‘urbanisation’ is included in the final communiqué and for heads of government to recognise the need for appropriate urban policy at national and local levels.

Tomorrow’s cities are being planned today and only by addressing these issues now will we be able to realise the potential of urbanisation to create prosperity, stability and a truly sustainable future.

Vince Cassar is president of the Commonwealth Association of Architects.

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