World Habitat Day and the challenges of urbanisation

The first Monday of October has been designated by the United Nations as World Habitat Day. The day is all about reflecting on the state of our towns and cities, and reminding the world of its collective responsibility for the future of the human habitat.

The theme of this year’s World Habitat Day is ‘Changing Cities, Building Opportunities’, with the focus being on cities as the world’s growth engines – currently more than half the world’s population live in towns and cities, and within a generation, that number will rise to two-thirds. It is also said that by 2030, up to 60% of these urban dwellers will be under the age of 18. The reason people flock to the cities in ever increasing numbers is that it is seen as the place where they can realize their dreams of a better life. Well planned and well built cities can provide a healthy support structure for this urbanisation; unplanned growth leads to chaos and urban sprawl.

Auckland, NZ. With a population of almost 1.4 million it is small by world standards, yet big in New Zealand – it is home to almost a third of the country’s population, and growing. The city thus aptly markets itself as the ‘Big Little City”.
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Urbanisation brings with it major challenges, but also great possibilities. To quote Dr Joan Clos, Executive Director of World Habitat Day 2012:

“The main challenges confronting cities and towns all over the world today include unemployment, especially among youth; social and economic inequalities; unsustainable energy consumption patterns; urban sprawl; high percentages of people living in slums; high levels of vulnerability to natural disasters; inadequate urban basic services, especially water, sanitation and energy; poor mobility systems and increasing emissions of greenhouse gases. 

Given that, historically, urbanisation has been a source of development rather than a result of it, it is clear that it can be used as a powerful tool for transforming production capacities and income levels in developing countries. This requires a mindset shift on the part of decision makers, away from viewing urbanisation as a problem, and instead towards seeing it as a tool for development.

Major changes are necessary. We have the science and the knowhow. And we know too that our ever growing cities are just where the changes can be implemented fastest and new opportunities created. We must all become city changers.”

Through the last line of Dr Clos’ message, World Habitat Day also ties in nicely with the wider UN-Habitat ‘I’m a city changer’ initiative. The idea being that making cities a better place to live is not just the responsibility of the authorities and the city planners, but that ordinary citizens can get involved as well. The initiative promotes these 10 reasons to be a city changer, and have released the little video below to promote the concept.

Get proactive on World Population Day

The world population currently numbers about 7 053 000 000 people. That’s a little over 7 billion.

According to the latest figures, an expected 350 000 new babies will be born into the world today. Over the same 24 hour period about 150 000 deaths will occur. To put this into perspective – in the 2-odd minutes you may spend reading this blog post, almost 500 births will take place, and 200 people will die.

For this year’s World Population Day, the focus falls on Universal Access to Reproductive Health Services.

Access to proactive reproductive health care holds the key to a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe, and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.

Of the 350 births today, many will be to women who are shockingly uninformed and under-serviced on all aspects of reproductive health, from birth control to safe childbirth to maternal and newborn healthcare. As a result of this, it is estimated that no less than 800 women die each day during childbirth, which is a tragedy in itself, but also means almost a thousand new children each day who have to face the world without a mother – their primary source of love, care and support. Given this situation, it is not surprising that among children below the age of 5, there are almost 20 000 deaths per day.

Universal access to Reproductive Health Services, with a key focus on education and services relating to pregnancy and contraception, is a critical, basic component of a healthy, stable population.

In a report by the Guttmacher Institute entitled “Adding it Up – Costs and Benefits of Investing in Contraceptive Services in the Developing World” it is reported that among women of reproductive age in developing countries, 867 million require contraception because they are sexually active but do not want a child in the next two years. Of these, 222 million currently don’t have access to modern contraceptive methods and rely on traditional, often unsafe and ineffective methods. As a result, an estimated 80 million unintended pregnancies will occur in the developing world in 2012. These will result in 30 million unplanned births, 40 million abortions and 10 million miscarriages.

Of course a critical issue in addressing this problem is funding. The cost of the current provision of contraceptive care in the developing world is about US$ 4 billion annually, while the required cost for fully meeting the total need for modern contraceptive methods in the developing world would exceed US$ 8 billion.

On the positive side (and this is the key message), this additional US$ 4 billion investment in contraception is estimated to result in a saving of almost US$ 6 billion in maternal and newborn health services costs. Addressing a humanitarian tragedy and gaining almost US$ 2 billion in the process – surely that makes sense?

So what can we do about it? Given that investing in improved reproductive health services is actually an investment with positive returns, it is not a case of the funds not being available, but of a need for the refocusing of some of the available funds towards proactive pre-pregnancy education and health services rather than reactive post-childbirth services. The best we can do is to get involved and support organisations who are working towards this change, and who are putting pressure on governments and donor agencies to apply available funding more proactively. Even just talking about this and creating awareness can help.

We can work together towards achieving the vision of the United Nations Population Fund‘s vision: “Achieving a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe, and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.”

Happy World Population Day!