IT MAY seem obvious that most people live in cities, but it has only been true for less than a decade. Humanity has previously been a rural species.
In 1800 just 3 per cent of people lived in cities, and it was still only 14 per cent in 1900. Cities remain a novelty in the scheme of things, and we are still learning. For all its magic, city life is full of mistakes, mishaps and misery.
When I was a boy living in the country, we thought that technology could bring the urban utopia everyone dreamed of, with all the blessings of living en masse and none of the pitfalls.
It did bring benefits, but Dickens’s 19th-century London lives on in cities everywhere, in the form of isolation, polarisation and inequity. Such human factors are the focus of a big international meeting in October, along with some very 21st-century issues, disaster and climate resilience.
There have been just two previous Habitat conferences, at 20-year intervals. This year in Quito, Ecuador, some 25,000 politicians, mayors, academics, planners, activists, community advocates and business people will put together a new UN urban agenda for coming decades.
How cities look — the grand vistas, monuments and planning schemes so beloved of developers and politicians — is unlikely to figure on the Quito agenda. The focus will be on how cities can better serve the needs of inhabitants, rich and poor.
Its starting point will be 17 landmark sustainable development goals, a 15-year plan signed a year ago by Australia and other UN member nations. Number 11 of these goals aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.
Urban ethics are a big talking point, centred on social inequity. In poorer countries, vast and rising gaps between poor and rich have resulted in one in three people living in a slum, while the rich, with government support, turn once-public land into gated communities.
Inequity, exacerbated by harsh treatment of intruders caught in gated suburbs and the touting of slum clearances as developments, threatens a city’s social fabric and economic viability. How cities confront another threat to sustainability, climate change, is also an equity issue. Rich people have resources to fall back on when extreme weather or rising seas threaten a community, but the less well-off are entitled to believe that authorities will look after their interests too.
The cynical view is that all strategic plans, from local government all the way up to the sustainable development goals, Habitat III and the 2015 Paris climate summit, are just devices to help leaders feel good while avoiding solid commitments.
According to this view, while ordinary people may feel they are being represented in the processes, and while governments invite comment on their plans, public thinking that runs counter to a chosen direction is quietly ignored.
But government should not be about self-interest, and the rest of us, armed with high-minded global declarations, are not without power. If ethical urbanisation, ethical anything, is to get its day in the sun, we need to ensure people we elect feel that power.
Peter Boyer began journalism at the Mercury in the 1960s. He has written about climate science for many years. In 2014 he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for services to science communication.