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Christian Friis Bach

Bach's Blog

The Executive Secretary's Blog

Let’s work together for sustainable and resilient cities

Today, 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and this proportion is expected to reach 66 per cent by 2050. In the UNECE region, 75% of the population already live in cities.

For centuries, cities have been a powerful magnet: they concentrate economic activity, growth, and innovation, but also social services, education and health care opportunities, culture and entertainment. Our region counts no less than 263 cities of 500,000 or more inhabitants, and several megalopolises, such as the Boston-Washington area, the Ruhrgebiet or Northern Italy.

The forces driving growing urbanization are strong but the expansion of urban areas also poses a serious challenge, generating problems which are increasingly affecting the proper functioning of cities and the well-being of their inhabitants: chronic congestion, air and noise pollution, increased vulnerability to extreme weather events, are some of the most common problems.

The main challenges and urban trends in our region have been summarised in the European regional report that will nurture our discussions this week at the European Habitat conference in Prague (16-18 March). The outcome of the Conference will contribute to the debates of the Habitat III Conference in Quito in October.

The report shows that our cities are still far from being sustainable and resilient and calls for stronger urban governance.

Urban sprawl is a general trend in the region, which creates problems such as high levels of car dependency, soil sealing, and expenditure needs for sustaining large but necessary infrastructure. Growing urbanization goes often together with increasing territorial imbalances, which undermines social cohesion and may add to environmental challenges.  While large urban conglomerations emerge, there are also shrinking cities within less successful and more remote regions. These cities are losing population as the young and highly qualified leave in search of better opportunities, leaving entire regions lagging behind.

Territorial imbalances are being accompanied by growing social inequality within and among cities, aggravated by the financial and economic crisis that started in 2008, which makes high-quality urban areas affordable only to the most affluent. Some 100 million low- and middle-income people in the UNECE region spend more than 40% of disposable income on accommodation. The lack of access to adequate affordable accommodation is a critical matter, increasing spatial segregation in cities, damaging entire neighbourhoods, and jeopardizing people’s perspectives.  Inequality has also a spatial dimension and the housing sector needs to respond better to this problem.

Urban transformation is taking place together with another secular trend: a rapidly ageing population in Europe. This generates new needs in terms of access to basic services such as health care transportation, adapted housing, and accessibility of public space, which will require innovative approaches.

Our cities are struggling to address multiple challenges, including ageing, migration, inequality and security in a difficult economic and financial context.   But they are also key engines of transformation, living laboratories that have generated innovative solutions to these problems in recent years.

On issues such as climate action, some cities have taken the lead at times when national governments were too slow to act. Technical innovation offers new opportunities for cities to improve urban planning and development, enhance land use, manage public transport more efficiently and better interact with citizens. But local actors need to be able to harness these developments. Improved governance, enhanced platforms for collaboration, vibrant spaces for exchange of experience… these are the tools that can contribute to harness the potential of cities for innovation across all dimensions of sustainable development.

UNECE is active in advising governments on how to address many of these challenges by reducing the environmental footprint of cities, promoting their resilience or increasing energy efficiency in housing. The Smart Sustainable City Indicators that we developed with the ITU and other partners will help cities implement concrete actions to increase their sustainability.  

All this work supports the implementation of the Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing, which aims to make housing safer, more affordable, resilient, and available.

In the Sustainable Development Goals, the international community committed (Goal 11) to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Solutions will only be found by bringing together State actors, multilateral organizations, local governments, the private sector and civil society.  HABITAT III offers us a unique opportunity to contribute to defining how cities are planned and managed, in order to fulfil their role as drivers of sustainable development. Let’s all do our part!


If you wonder why the animal accompanying my blog is a cow, it is because cows are fascinating animals; the cows of our host country, Switzerland, are famous for their quality; and because I am still a farmer, and miss the cows I had in Denmark. Now I got one back.