Now’s the time to build a city with a conscience

COMMON GOOD: With the trend for city living intensifying, innovative strategies are needed to ensure adequate housing, urban resilience and sustainable settlements.
COMMON GOOD: With the trend for city living intensifying, innovative strategies are needed to ensure adequate housing, urban resilience and sustainable settlements.

​There has been so much change in Newcastle. The city is moving forward, but what does our future city look like? Are we building a city with a conscience and a city that considers all the people who live in it?

By 2050, the world urban population is expected to nearly double, posing massive challenges for sustainable urban development. With 70 per cent of the world’s population in cities, we need to rethink how we plan for the future.

Even though Australia is only second to Antarctica in the sparseness of our population, almost 90 per cent of us live in urban areas, making us one of the most highly urbanised countries on earth. This trend towards city living will only intensify. 

On average, our houses are the largest on the planet but fewer of us can afford to buy them. Cities are complex interdependent networks of economic, social and environmental systems, all of which have to work together to achieve common good, which should be the goal of human dignity in life, but this is often lost in the modern landscape.

Every 20 years the United Nations convenes a highly influential global Habitat conference for those with an interest in human settlements – and particularly cities – and they try to answer how the world's urban centres should develop in the next two decades in order to deliver the maximum benefit to humanity.

The development of cities, while crucial to the future of humanity, is part of a larger piece, namely creating the world we want for our children and beyond. Last year, the global community unanimously committed to the 2030 Development Agenda recognising the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN-SDGs) as the blueprint for the future.

But, you may ask, so what? Isn't this simply a grand talkfest? UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha, warned that “Globally, there is an interest in housing – but not as a human right, or an issue requiring urgent attention to assist the most vulnerable groups in cities around the world.”  In Australia three million people live in poverty and homelessness is not the rarity we would like to believe. Our cities are both the problem and, potentially, the solution. 

Ms Farha acknowledged the “steep hill ahead” noting that Habitat III was “only a first step” and “it's not conferences that make change, it is people.”

Cities, rural communities, local governments and private enterprise, along with all elements of civil society must come to share an understanding of what is necessary in order to balance enterprise with equity, individual desire with dignity for all, and an expedient present with a sustainable future.

We are the people who can shape this future, and in 2015 Newcastle was named a ‘United Nations City’ and became a UN training hub for the Asia-Pacific region for Disaster Preparedness and Risk Reduction hosted by the University. CIFAL Newcastle has committed to a strategic plan for 2017 that will focus on awareness-raising and assistance in adopting and implementing the UN-SDGs in the Hunter. There is not a moment to lose to create the city we want, and hope to also create a city with a strong conscience.

Associate Professor Brewer recently attended the UN’s Habitat III conference in Ecuador with UON Vice-Chancellor Caroline McMillen and Newcastle councillors Michael Osbourne and Declan Clausen. 

Associate Professor Graham Brewer is director of CIFAL Newcastle