UN tool will map 'science of cities' as rapid urbanization emerges as force in sustainable development

9 June 2016

With the urban growth boom driving trends that will affect all aspects of sustainable development, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) is set to release today details of a new scientific tool that measures the rate of global urbanization, its characteristics, and the potential effect of urban sprawl on the quality of life for city dwellers.

The UN Sample of Cities uses a representative sample of 200 cities worldwide, both in the developed and developing world, to track and interpret trends relating to aspects of urban life as diverse as air and water quality, the time it takes to travel from home to work, physical proximity to employment, housing affordability, and access to enjoyable public space.

Whilst the world continues to urbanize at an alarming rate, understanding just how cities evolve, how that headlong evolution can be managed, and the effect of urban life on humanity has lagged behind. According to UN-HABITAT, since 2007, more than half of the world's population lives in urban centres and cities, and by 2050 as many as 70 per cent of a projected population of 9 billion people will be urban dwellers.

The UN Sample of Cities, launched at UN headquarters in New York today by Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN Habitat, Eduardo López Moreno, Coordinator, Research and Capacity Development Branch, UN-Habitat (via telephone), Shlomo Angel, Adjunct Professor & Senior Research Scholar, New York University, and Anthony Flint, Fellow & Director of Public Affairs, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, provides open-source data to researchers to draw scientifically valid comparisons between world cities.

This 'science of cities' adopts cities as units of analysis and studies them together to discover patterns of similarities and differences, and the consequent impact of urbanization on human quality of life. “Cities, how they form, and the effects of urbanization on the quality of human life must now be treated as a science,” said Mr. Clos, which added: “The unprecedented confluence of climate change, population boom, and the rush to live in cities means that our critical human development will take place in cities.”

“How will we manage this vast change? What secrets do we need to unlock? Does life in a city mean doom or boon for our children and the generations that follow?” are some of the key issues raised by the research and findings in the survey.

“We are going to monitor global and regional progress of urbanization worldwide, and this is going to be a tool that is going to give us information in that sense,” Mr. Clos told reporters in New York.

“We encourage the research institutions from the world and people interested in analyzing – in an objective manner – the evolution of urbanization to jump in and to collaborate with this worldwide research exercise,” he added.

The UN Sample of Cities, released ahead of the Habitat III – shorthand for the major global summit formally known as the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, set to be held in Quito, Ecuador, on 17-20 October 2016 – was created, tested, and applied in a series of studies undertaken by a tri-partite collaboration between UN-Habitat, the NYU Urban Expansion Program at New York University, and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Three additional research programs in this tri-partite collaboration are already making use of the UN Sample of Cities. One programme uses detailed satellite imagery analysis to measure the proportion of public and private space, and the quality of the urban fabric. A second uses a network of on-the-ground informants to gather information on the regulatory regimes governing land and housing, whilst a third program measures housing affordability.


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