Ban Ki-Moon Calls on World's Mayors to Support Sustainable Cities

"Our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities." -- Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General

The Nobel laureate poet Derek Walcott once said, "A culture, we all know, is made by its cities." While that may be true, what's becoming clear, and perhaps even more important, is that a sustainable future will be made by cities as well.

On April 23, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made this point when he addressed a delegation of mayors and regional authorities at the United Nations, saying that the future well-being of humanity rests on sustainable cities.

The clock is ticking down to the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, a June 20-22 meeting in Rio de Janeiro that Ban called "a once-in-a-generation opportunity," as it will set the global sustainability agenda for the next decade. He stressed the importance of achieving a practical and transformational outcome, saying that the world's cities must assume a central role in moving society towards a sustainable existence.


By 2050, 70 percent of the world's human population will be living in cities, with the greatest urban growth to occur in Africa, Asia and Latin America. And the most rapid growth is happening in megacities.

According to UN Habitat, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, which promotes socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities, "Urbanization and climate change two of the greatest challenges currently facing humanity in the 21st century, and whose effects are converging in dangerous ways."

"The implications of this change are clear," said Ban. "Our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities."


For the world's mayors, there is a lot to consider. From capital markets of urban sustainable finance to the analysis of macroeconomic efficiency, from identification of market gaps in urban investment to feasibility studies of urban development funds, and of course, to ensuring the safe, secure and sustainable development of urban population growth and immigration, managing urbanization requires substantial resources, from staffing to funding, and not least of all, public-private partnerships.

At the UN meeting, Ban told the mayors and regional authorities in attendance that their support "has never been more crucial to delivering practical results that will defeat poverty, protect the natural environment and improve disaster risk reduction."

"By prioritizing sustainable urbanization within a broader development framework, many critical development challenges can be addressed in tandem," said Ban. "Energy, water, food, biodiversity, climate change adaptation, exposure to natural hazards, consumption and production patterns, social protection floors and jobs, especially for young people—these are all closely linked. Our challenge is to connect the dots, so that advances on one can generate progress on others."


There is also the challenge of connecting the "dot" that is oneself to the "dots" that represent all the other people with whom we share the planet. By 2050, there will be a staggering nine billion of these "dots" jockeying for position.

In an interview with the Paris Review in 1986, Walcott described the sense of gratitude that he felt when he was a young poet, "for the beauty of the earth, the beauty of life around us." He said that this feeling "may be repressed in some way, but…we continue in all our lives to have that sense of melting, of the 'I' not being important."

This sense of egolessness, of not thinking about the self and all the self's attendant desires, is something that is always in short supply. This sad fact has not only hampered sustainability (as "unconscious consumers" have thoroughly degraded the environment and biodiversity), but has also limited our sense of fiscal responsibility: No one can doubt the central role that unfettered greed and unchecked selfishness played in the global financial crisis.

Perhaps the Rio+20 delegates might consider writing a poem about a sustainable future. "If one thinks a poem is coming on," said Walcott, "what you're taking on is really not a renewal of your identity but actually a renewal of your anonymity."

As we witness and respond to the rapid march of urbanization, that kind of egoless anonymity could prove useful in making the kind of paradigm shift that Ban describes. After all, cities are good places to disappear into the crowd. But, as the Occupy Movement has so amply proven, they are also good places for making the case for seismic social change.



Ban, Ki-moon. Our Struggle for Global Sustainability Will be Won or Lost in Cities. Secretary-General SG/SM/14249 ENV/DEV/1276 HAB/217. Department of Public Information. News and Media Division. April 23, 2012. Accessed April 26, 2012.
UN-HABITAT. Cities and Climate Change: Global Report on Human Settlements 2011. December 12, 2010. Accessed April 26, 2012.
Ibid., 1.
Interview with Derek Walcott by Edward Hirsch. Derek Walcott, The Art of Poetry No. 37. Paris Review. Winter 1986, No. 101. Accessed April 26, 2012.

image: Frankfurt am Main, Germany (credit: Nicolas Scheuer, Wikimedia Commons)