Building peaceful, just and inclusive societies in an increasingly urbanised world


On the left is Karial slum, one of the urban slums in Dhaka. One billion people-one out of three urban dwellers-are living in slum conditions (UN Photo/Kibae Park)

This month, decision-makers from all over the world will gather in Quito, Ecuador, at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) to galvanise global commitment to the sustainable development of towns and cities and agree on a new global strategy around urbanization.

Global attention to development challenges in urban areas is not new; yet, with the exception of a target to improve the lives of some 100 million slum dwellers (under Goal 7 on environmental sustainability), the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were mute on the role of cities in our sustainable future. Despite the growing nature of urban conflict and violence, urbanization was also not addressed in the 2015 reviews of the UN Peacebuilding Architecture and Peace Operations.

With more than half of the world population now being urban and that percentage predicted to grow to 60% by 2030 and 66% by 2050, the trends point to a future that will be increasingly urbanised. Most of that urban expansion will be in the developing world, particularly in Asia and Africa.

It is therefore not surprising that the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda now includes a specific goal to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (Goal 11). With a large portion of humanity living in cities, achieving the sustainable development agenda will essentially be an urban challenge. Cities will therefore also play a lead role in achieving many other goals such as 'ending poverty' (Goal 1), 'reducing inequality' (Goal 10), 'promoting inclusive and sustainable growth' (Goal 8), 'combating climate change' (Goal 13), and certainly 'building peaceful, just and inclusive societies' (Goal 16).

Cities are magnets that attract financial, economic, social as well as human capital. They thrive on population flows that contribute to economic growth, cultural diversity and technological innovations as we have seen in cities as diverse as New York, Sao Paulo, London, Beirut, Cape Town, Hong Kong, Sydney or Tokyo. But urbanisation also brings new challenges. In the next 15 years, more than 1.5 billion people, including migrants and refuges, will move to urban areas in developing as well as developed countries --- seeking jobs, services, shelter and security, and a better life for their families and future generations.

The pressures these entail are immense. For example, the development of new residential, administrative and commercial areas in India for example, is likely to be equivalent to building a city like Chicago every single year for the next decade to come. Durable solutions to the challenges of addressing poverty, unemployment, clean energy, environmental sustainability, delivery of services, peace and security will increasingly need to respond to an urbanized world and its impact on the neighbouring rural areas.

The high concentration of people, assets, economic activities and critical infrastructure creates lots of opportunities. But is also makes cities particularly vulnerable to violence and criminal activities, including attacks by violent extremists. In the first half of 2016 only, the list of terrorist and violent extremist attacks in urban areas on schools, cultural centres, sports gatherings and other public places where people converge is long and includes cities as diverse as Brussels, Nice, Munich, Bamako, Grand Bassam, Tel Aviv, Bagdad, Aleppo, Aden, Mogadishu, Kabul, Jalalabad, Peshawar, Kuala Lumpur, Dhaka and Orlando.

Cities can be fertile breeding ground for radical movements that could lead to violent extremism. Inequalities in cities have been rising since 1980 and one quarter of the world's urban population now live in slums without basic services and social protection. Crime rates in cities are higher than in the rural areas, with victimization rates reaching up to 70% in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa according to the UN Habitat Reports since 2011 and theWorld Migration Report 2015. The social control systems that existed in the rural communities no longer seem to work in the social labyrinth of our cities, where strangers often pass unnoticed and neighbours live behind closed doors. The declining ability of public institutions at the city level to deliver on the social contract is a feature in many developing countries.

Cities in middle and high income countries are also under pressure to better understand grievances in their communities. Given their proximity to their populations, city governments and local communities are best positioned to take initiatives for the prevention of violent extremism, such as early warning systems for the detection of radical behaviour, programmes targeting alienated youth and the reintegration of returning fighters, and measures to foster social cohesion in neighbourhoods at risk.

While solution to violent extremism remain essentially the subject of discussions in the national intelligence, border security and law enforcement agencies, a growing number of cities are therefore asserting a more prominent role in testing out local solutions for preventing violent extremism. The city of Aarhus in Denmark, developed programmes for the reintegration of fighters returning from Syria, provided they did not commit criminal activities. In March 2015, the City of Montreal established a Centre for the Prevention of Radicalisation leading to Violent Extremism, a non-for-profit organisation that provides support and mentoring, monitors social changes linked to radicalization and addresses also the prevention of hate crimes and incidents.

UNDP's corporate "Sustainable Urbanization Strategy" outlines UNDP's response to the rapid urbanization of the developing world and its consequences for sustainable development. It calls for a risk-informed, conflict sensitive and human-centred approach to urban planning. Indeed, countries that have been successful in reducing violence had a strong focus on broad participation at the community level.

The governance of urban spaces - i.e. how cities plan, design and organise urban public spaces for building, culture, recreation etc. - has a major impact on how cities can deal with violence and conflict, increase tensions, or trigger new solutions for more peaceful and integrated societies. It requires data to be disaggregated by age, sex, income and geographical location in order to better understand horizontal inequality patterns within the cities. Relationships between people and state will increasingly be nurtured in our cities and municipalities. How we manage and improve those relationships may well be a decisive factor in whether or not we will succeed in building peaceful, just and inclusive societies.

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