United Nations

United Nations Habitat executive director calls for the creation of denser cities

Hong Kong and New York are cited as examples, although they are very costly

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 5:24am

The United Nations has advice for city planners around the world: move people closer together.

Designing more compact, higher-density cities is key to improving the well-being of the world's burgeoning urban population, said undersecretary general Joan Clos, the executive director of UN Habitat and a former mayor of Barcelona.

He said too many cities were characterised by urban sprawl that makes it harder for people to get around and get access to basic services, especially in vast slums where the poor live far away from their jobs, medical services and food stores. Growing suburbs, meanwhile, discourage the use of public transport, biking and walking, which in turn contributes to pollution through reliance on cars.

Clos said the world's average urban population density is "extremely low" at an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants per square kilometre. By comparison, he said Manhattan has a population density of 56,000 inhabitants per square kilometre. In Hong Kong, the world's highest-density city, he said the figure was 96,000.

More than 50 per cent of the world's population lives in urban areas, a number that is expected to reach 65 per cent within 40 years, Clos said.

"It's a huge transformation in the life experience of a lot of humans. And this requires political attention, economic attention, social attention," he said at a news conference ahead of World Habitat Day tomorrow.

Clos acknowledged the difficulties involved in trying to build high-density city centres. In New York and Hong Kong, high density comes with some of the world's highest living costs. But Clos said those were extreme examples. In Europe, he said, the average urban population density is more like 15,000 inhabitants per square kilometre. He said offering affordable housing involves difficult political decisions - perhaps replacing subsidised petrol with more subsidised housing.

Clos said high density need not be the same as overcrowding.

"What cannot be sustained is spontaneous urbanisation. When we have spontaneous urbanisation instead of welldesigned, high-density cities, we have overcrowding," he said. "And that is what is happening in the favelas, the slums and other places."