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Urbanization Top Priority at UN Habitat Assembly

FILE - The Nairobi skyline is seen in the background as a zebra walks through the Nairobi National Park, near Nairobi, Kenya, December 3, 2018.

NAIROBI — With the number of people living in cities projected to rise to five billion by 2030, experts say it is critical that efficient urban planning and management practices are in place to deal with the challenges brought by urbanization.  

Participants at the second United Nations Habitat Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, said city planners and governments needed to adopt the U.N.’s New Urban Agenda, a global framework on how to guide and track urbanization.

Speaking on the sidelines of the high-level meeting this week, U.N. officials said the new agenda provides the policies and standards required to transform the way people sustainably build, operate and live in cities.

Paula Pennanen-Rebeiro, a human settlements officer at the United Nations Human Settlements Program, or U.N.-Habitat, said the recommended standards give national and city governments guidelines for sustainable cities.

She highlighted a case in Lesotho, a collaboration between U.N.-Habitat and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa assisting the country to promote sustainable urban development. But as Pennanen-Rebeiro explained, a key issue has been lacking urban data.

"Now if Lesotho wants to focus on the new urban agenda implementation, where are they actually starting from? Data is so essential for this."

Pennanen-Rebeiro added this case in Lesotho would "surely apply to many, many African cities."

As cities grow larger, they face problems with poorly built and overcrowded housing that is built too close to flood zones, highways or trash dumps. The crowding also adds to pollution and public health risks.

The new framework, agreed upon by U.N. member states, emphasizes the important role of local and regional governments to ensure the creation of better, safer and resilient cities.

Lara Kinneir, an associate professor at the London Interdisciplinary School and a consultant with U.N.-Habitat, said there is need to implement agreed upon agenda.

"They can no longer be words on a page. We have solutions; they have been on the table for quite a while. And, now is the moment for people to embrace and ensure they can start acting on it tomorrow, not at the next assembly," Kinneir said.

In most African cities, essential services, such as water and electricity supplies, and as well as resources such as health care and education are already strained with migration increasingly leading to the growth of informal settlements.

Jacob Ngumi, the chief executive of the Kenya-based non-profit organization Young Professionals for Development, said cities in Africa need to correctly direct land governance and management, zoning cities for "industry, land for settlements and land for commercial enterprises."

"(Cities) also need to plan with a green mind — green technologies and green spaces to green the cities so that the cities can be [environment] friendly," Ngumi said.

The U.N. Habitat Assembly ended Friday in Nairobi; the theme of the week-long session was "a sustainable urban future through inclusive and effective multilateralism: achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in times of global crises."