Poverty, growing inequality, chaotic traffic and choking smog — this might sound like a description of Dhaka, but it is telling the same story as of a global phenomenon. But it doesn't have to be this way. There is hope that cities can become prosperous centres of opportunity for all, designed with the input of its own citizens.
Cities are often centres of human achievement and aspiration — they are hubs of innovation, culture, learning, and opportunity. But all too often cities are also spaces where people are excluded, unable to access basic services, secure land tenure, and access jobs. Global trends indicate that by 2050, more than 60 percent of the global population will reside in urban areas.
The UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, also known as Habitat 3, laid out a global strategy to guide the development of cities for the next two decades called “New Urban Agenda” - this is a rare opportunity we must seize.
The urban future we hope for, agreed upon by more than 170 countries, is one of sustainability, resilience, and prosperity. The city is entering a new and optimistic era but achieving this vision requires more than hope and the signing of a piece of paper. It requires a critical assessment of how cities are growing and being managed, the adoption of inclusive policies that don't leave out the poor and marginalised, and a strong commitment from governments to bring in the legislation and financial resources needed.
The New Urban Agenda, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), promote the idea that no one should be left behind; meaning that when cities grow and develop, the wealthy should not be the only ones who benefit. All people should be involved in decision-making about planning and be consulted on day-to-day city management. To ensure no one is left behind, leaders must put people at the centre of urban development. Some cities have recognised this and are reaping the benefits, even right here in Bangladesh.
In Narayanganj, for example, urban poor communities are working with the UNDP and city officials to gather data about community conditions, which they are mapping, and are identifying where investments and social support are needed. They are not only ensuring that no one be left behind, but that no place will be left behind either.
In Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte, Brazil, citizens can vote on how their local budgets are planned and used, so they can prioritise urgent investments and monitor their implementation.
Cities in the Philippines employ citizen complaint mechanisms to connect people with elected officials, so that leaders can respond directly to people and address problems with public services.
Across Europe, city governments are using social media and open forums to listen to residents' ideas on how to improve their neighbourhoods so they can better respond to what they want.
These initiatives give a voice to those who otherwise might not be heard, and allow citizens to advocate for the issues that concern them most. As a result, these cities are finding innovative ways to respond to the needs of the disabled, women, youth, and the urban poor, creating more liveable and accessible spaces.
Think of the issue of mobility, the way that people move around cities to access jobs, education, healthcare and recreation - who should we be planning for? People who live furthest from the centre, for example, often rely on an inefficient and uncomfortable transportation system and spend hours of their day in traffic. The poor who can't afford land and housing closer to their jobs. Yet, year after year, government after government, we continue to build more roads, favouring those who own cars, ignoring the majority who cannot afford to drive.
In Dhaka and other large cities across Bangladesh, a people-centered policy would emphasise improving public transportation, creating more housing opportunities and making public transportation safer and more comfortable for women, who in many cities report harassment and insecurity. This could bring people closer to parks, help them live healthier lives, save time on travel, and spread opportunities further.
To achieve this vision requires strong policy frameworks, regulations, and financial resources. Above all, it requires visionary leadership, and a willingness to work with local communities, including the poor.
If this new agenda fails, cities will only continue to grow in an unplanned and disorderly manner, as they are now. And while urbanisation can bring great social and economic benefits, if not corrected, if not inclusive, or adequately supported, it will only exacerbate poverty and inequality, and cause environmental destruction.
Developing inclusive and productive cities will take time — as the saying goes, Rome wasn't built in a day, but its necessary to start working to ensure this new era of the city is a bright one.
The writer is International Project Manager for the National Urban Poverty Reduction Programme of UNDP.