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19 December 2011

Ford Foundation President Addresses UN Convening on Sustainable and Just Cities

“Sustainable and Just Cities: New Priorities for the Rio+20 Conference,” a side event of the 2nd Intersessional Meeting of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, New York, N.Y. December 15, 2011

As we’ve seen today, the state of our cities is a pivotal issue that already touches the lives of half the world’s population and which will only grow. All of the world’s population growth over the next four decades—some 2.3 billion people—will to take place in urban areas. For anyone who cares about sustainability and about social justice, these facts raise urgent questions: What should the cities of the future look like? How will urban areas live up to the aspirations of all residents, as opposed to just a few? How can we ensure that our cities evolve as just cities—shaped by fairness, sustainability and shared prosperity?

Metropolitan regions are the crossroads for the social justice issues we care about. The environment, jobs, education, cultural expression and human rights will thrive, or suffer, as a result of how we manage our growing urban regions. Building just, prosperous and sustainable metropolitan communities demands that we open our minds to fresh thinking. It demands that we have the courage to reach beyond municipal borders and pursue regional solutions: New ways of thinking about transportation, housing development and land use. It requires national governments to create policy frameworks that empower city leaders to take action. It relies on new and innovative partnerships between the public and private sectors. To break down the old silos which have stood in the way of next-generation solutions.

We know that this won’t be easy. But I have to tell you, this is a topic for which I have immense optimism. While some fret about rapid urbanization, we see great possibility. The growth of cities can be an incredible opportunity for our collective efforts to reduce poverty, expand economic opportunity, achieve social justice and protect the environment. In short, cities can catalyze sustainable development.

But in order to make that happen, we need a fundamental mindset shift: a new way of thinking about cities and urban development. We’re here today because this mind shift must be fully embraced at Rio. Today, I want to outline a few key principles that we think are critical to ensuring that urbanization becomes an opportunity to improve lives and build a healthier planet.

The first principle is density. An abundance of research now tells us that density boosts creativity, entrepreneurial energy and jobs. At the same time, density is key to mitigating climate change, ensuring that residents are close to where they live and work.

The second principle is diversity. Cities that are inclusive and actively welcome diversity experience not just faster but also smarter growth.

The third principle is sound land use planning and regularization. Sustainable cities must be well-planned—designed for efficient land use and energy use, and able to maximize economic opportunities for all residents. Similarly, giving residents ownership of land and standing at the municipal and provincial levels unleashes creative energy and growth, while also unleashing a more profound commitment by urban residents to the sustainability of their communities. Granting residency rights empowers residents and gives them a stake in the sustainable development of their own cities. It makes them a force for change that is much more powerful than anything that can be designed on their behalf from the outside.

Urban leaders who act on these principles—and make sound investments in infrastructure—can ensure that cities become engines of economic mobility and drivers of sustainable growth. Those who resist diversity, delay investments in infrastructure and fail to expand simple ownership will actually discourage the sustainability of cities—and that will have grave consequences for all of us.

Your support of these principles—and your actions to implement them—will prove crucial to unlocking the potential of cities to be a positive force for sustainable development. If cities are the key to a sustainable planet—and they are—making them succeed at all levels matters. That’s the message we need to act on in Rio.

Thank you all for joining us.

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