Urban areas generate more than 80 per cent of global GDP – and 70 per cent of GHG emissions, therefore it is their role to be the leaders of climate action to meet the 1.5 degrees goal. To do it effectively, and to hope for an optimistic future, cities must embody a new social contract – with universal basic income, health coverage and affordable housing – says Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif, the Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN-Habitat in an exclusive interview for the National Centre for Climate Change, part of the Institute of Environmental Protection – National Research Institute, on the eve of the eleventh session of the World Urban Forum in Katowice, Poland.

Ms. Sharif, WUF 11 in Katowice will be the first Forum to be held not only in Poland, but also in Eastern Europe. What are, in your opinion, the most important challenges facing the cities in this part of Europe and in Poland?

Indeed, this is the first time for the World Urban Forum in this part of Europe and it is happening

at an extraordinary moment – the climate emergency, the massive disruption of communities due to COVID-19 and the ongoing war in Ukraine, and conflicts and disasters across the world have threatened our better future.

Cities in Eastern Europe and in Poland have undergone impressive transformation over the past three decades, but they still face a great number of challenges. Climate change adaptation, demographic changes and shrinking cities – just to name some of them. The COVID-19 pandemic has created additional challenges and put pressure on national and local governments to provide resources and manage responses in cities. Humanitarian crisis in this region and the war in Ukraine have forced more than 11 million people from their homes in just a few months – Poland alone is hosting more than 3 million people! And this will add additional pressure on the government.

We need new thinking and a holistic response to manage urban crises and at the same time, rebuild cities to be greener, more sustainable, and resilient.

“Transforming our Cities for a Better Urban Future” – this is the title of WUF11. How far is this future, in your opinion? IPCC reports say directly that we have less and less time…

This title is very fitting, as we urgently need innovative solutions for urban areas to respond to the triple C crises I just mentioned – COVID, climate and conflict.

Urban areas generate more than 80 per cent of global GDP – and 70 per cent of GHG emissions, therefore it is their role to be the leaders of climate action to meet the 1.5 degrees goal. I am very happy to see more and more cities across the world commit to net zero by 2050 or before.

But, to do it effectively, and to hope for an optimistic future, cities must embody a new social contract – with universal basic income, health coverage and affordable housing. Governments and cities already have a roadmap to urban resilience in the global development agenda: the Sustainable Development Goals, the New Urban Agenda, and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Now we need real action to implement these commitments. And local action to realize the New Urban Agenda and achieve SDG 11 is the most promising pathway to a better urban future.

You are the first Asian elected for the role of UN-Habitat’s Executive Director. I mention this because Asian cities are a role model for many others – both in terms of sustainable development, and in pursuit of climate neutrality. Are there any practices that have already proven themselves in cities on the Asian continent that can be implemented in other parts of the urban world?

First of all, let us understand the sheer size of the Asian continent – it is 4.3 billion people or 60 per cent of the world population, and now over 50 per cent urban. I like to reflect on its successes but also mention the challenges. Many cities in Asia have been very innovative in developing greener and more sustainable approaches of urban development. Transit Oriented Development is being adopted by many cities, combining the advantages of density, mixed-use and sustainable mobility, and China mainstreamed the concept of “sponge cities”. As many Asian cities have seen a tremendous scale of expansion and construction, there was scope for this innovation.

However, as ESCAP’s 2021 SDG report for the region showed, climate neutrality is not within reach and SDG13 on climate change is even regressing. The Secretary-General called the climate threat a “code red for humanity” and the code red is also true, unfortunately, for Asia-Pacific and most of its cities.  

Prof. Richard Betts, one of the authors of the latest IPCC report, argues that cities need to be better prepared to remove the effects of flooding. It seems that water management in general is one of the most urgent urban issues today – do you agree with that opinion?

Air pollution and water management are both tremendous challenges as mismanaging them triggers both disaster situations and long-term threats. Of course, flooding is a particular issue that shows that a lot of contemporary urban development is not safe from extreme weather events happening more often and with increasing intensity.

I like to mention three interrelated urbanization problems – urban expansion, impermeable urban environments and heat islands. Urban expansion has decreased natural flood lands and expanded built up areas in at risk flood basins. Urban development comes with hardscapes and the elimination of natural drainage capacity. And metropolitan heat islands are increasing the risk of localized, destructive storms.

The poorest and most vulnerable communities live on average in the cheapest and most at risk neighbourhoods and areas. Cities need to employ a suite of solutions, such as green building, green infrastructure and ecosystem-based adaptation, and reach out to and collaborate with the most vulnerable communities.

Do you see any other urgent challenges facing cities today? Which issues are the “most urgent of the most urgent” for cities?

Building economic, social and environmental resilience, including appropriate governance and institutional structures, must be at the heart of the future of cities. These are the most urgent issues.

To meet this challenge, cities must prioritize reduction in poverty and inequality. The must foster productive and inclusive urban economies that provide opportunities for all. They also need to adopt environmental policies and actions that mitigate and adapt to climate change, promote clean energy and protect ecosystems.

And, last but not least, cities need responsive urban planning and governance systems in which with finance, innovation and technology play overarching roles. 

We expect a lot of urban leaders and experts from all over the world to meet in Katowice. What should we expect to be the outcome of the WUF11? What should be the result of this event that you personally expect the most?

The five days of the World Urban Forum will conclude with the Katowice Declared Actions that will see representatives of government, civil society, the private sector and the stakeholders of the New Urban Agenda, a roadmap to sustainable development adopted in 2016 in Quito, declare their commitments to support sustainable urbanization. They will register these commitments in the New Urban Agenda platform, where we can track how these actions are being implemented.

From our engagement with Member States, more than 1,600 cities and multiple stakeholders, it is clear that we need transformative actions. We would like to see new actions and commitments made to advance the implementation of the New Urban Agenda and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 11 – “creating sustainable cities and communities”.