Date: Oct 3, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Understanding cities is key to national development
Hiba Huneini
The United Nations Development Program, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and partners launched the “City2City Network” during the “Making Cities for All” event on Sept. 26th - a high-level side event to the 74th United Nations General Assembly.

City2City Network is a peer-to-peer learning platform to support smart and inclusive cities by helping them manage challenges strategically and learn from each other. Such a platform is expected to bring cities together to diagnose their urban challenges and design solutions with experts, the private sector and civil society representatives, in areas such as digital transformation, energy and climate change, resilience, governance, the informal economy and municipal financing for development. Such a network is in line with the road map of the Sustainable Development Goals, as achieving at least 110 of 169 SDG targets requires the direct engagement of cities and local authorities.

We are living in an urbanized world where 70 million people migrate to cities every year. It is expected that 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. Cities are growing rapidly and are unable to cope with the rising socio-economic demands. This is accompanied by rising grievances and the expansion of urban slums that nurture social problems. For this reason, setting local strategies that are human-centered and focused on preserving the resources of future generations is inevitable. Amid pressing priorities and demands, cities are stressed by the urgent need for service delivery and infrastructure investment on one hand, and an inability to develop strong participative governance systems capable of managing the increasing population on another hand. So, they transform into fragile cities that are easily segregated.

According to the UNDP, cities consume 80 percent of the world’s resources and produce most of the world’s waste. Moreover, cities use 80 percent of the world’s energy. In 2030, 40 percent of all jobs will be automated in many cities. Despite all emerging challenges and urban pressure in cities, they are hubs for innovation and opportunities. The digital transformation that we are witnessing is reinventing the future of cities.

Therefore, our analysis needs to go beyond the territorial nature of a given city toward a systemic perspective on it. In his book “The New Science of Cities,” Michael Batty introduces concepts and tools that can be applied to understand the structure of cities. Batty considers that “to understand cities we must view them not simply as places in space but as systems of networks and flows.” Shifting our understanding to cities will have an impact on the future’s cities. “Cities are unpredictable because they are complex systems and the product of countless individual and collective decisions that do not conform to any grand plan.” Thus, cities are not planned but invented. This constitutes new foundations of how we analyze, diagnose and design developmental interventions in cities. Applying such new theories and concepts will help us to invent future cities that are resilient and capable of coping with all technological and demographic advancement.

This mindset has considerable room for application at the local level in Lebanon, where segregation and polarization are key issues that rise to the surface while tackling balanced and inclusive development. The national budget is currently being discussed along with a series of draft laws such as municipal and elections laws. Local priorities and developmental strategies are the core of national and international stakeholders’ agendas. Thus, in order to confront the current challenges, all reforms and developmental projects must be based on the foundations of understanding the deep structure of how cities function. We must not diagnose realities in cities by their infrastructure needs alone, but by studying the dynamics of their social networks and collective decision-making processes. Balanced development based on a deep understanding of cities is the cornerstone of any long-term sustainable development process at the national level.

Hiba Huneini is manager of the youth and civic engagement program at the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development. Email her at [email protected]
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 02, 2019, on page 2.