SINGAPORE--The accelerating trend of urbanization, which has led to more than half the world's population living in towns and cities, may be a boon if governments plan well, particularly in areas such as housing and clean water.
According to Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's minister for environment and water resources, about 80 percent of people globally will live in cities by 2050. This may represent positive opportunities rather than a bane if governments plan well though, he said. He was speaking at the World Cities Summit 2012 conference held here on Monday.
Elaborating, Balakrishnan pointed out that dense, open, well-connected and well-planned cities are the greenest, most sustainable, and a focal point for opportunities. One issue for governments to contend with here is housing though.
"In Singapore, we provide subsidized housing, and not only do citizens live in public housing, they also own the space they live in and hence will take care of it," he said, adding the country does not have slum communities that are a feature in other cities.
When the quality of a country's environment is of a high standard, this becomes a source of enduring competitive advantage, the minister stated. This is because a destination that attracts people to locate their families and money in will beget other investments. Companies would see this and build their regional or even global headquarters in such places, with Singapore an example of this, he added.
He did urge other governments to invest in good governance and maintain and renew infrastructure. As cities become engines of growth and a magnet for people seeking better economic opportunities, this would create enormous pressures on urban infrastructure.
"Build a beautiful city; conserve energy and water; tap new, innovative technologies, especially with private sector partners; and have good, honest and competent leaders," Balakrishnan advised.
Helen Clark, administrator of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and former New Zealand prime minister, who also spoke at the conference here on Monday, urged countries facing rapid urbanization to take a "green and inclusive" economic approach.
"The decision for an eco-city needs to be inclusive. Leaders need to listen to the public, from NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to civic societies and so on," Clark said, adding that citizens need to back leaders with visionary plans and work together to achieve a win-win situation for their cities.
She called out two critical areas for cities to focus on: access to clean water, and a clean and non-polluted environment. According to the United Nations, it is estimated that 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water and more than 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation as of 2010.
"It’s an issue of basic human dignity and of health," she said, and hoped the next set of goals for Rio+20 will address this issue more urgently.
Rio+20 is the other name for the United Nations conference on sustainable development, which took plan in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2012, and where different stakeholders came together to shape how the global community can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection.
Clark also reiterated Balakrishnan's points on how good leadership is critical, ensuring good governance for resources, and being open to public and private sector partnerships in order for urban cities to improve their infrastructure plans.
Clement Teo is a freelance IT writer based in Singapore.