City Harvest:  Seeking a UN Urban Agenda That Deepens our Rural Connections, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 May

This week the UN Security Council was on mission in East Africa, the General Assembly was focused on AIDS and Migration, and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues concluded another round of UN-based advocacy.  The rest of the building was taken up with preparations for the UN Humanitarian Summit (now underway in Istanbul) and with aspects of trade, development and “south-south” cooperation relevant to the fulfillment of our general obligations under the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Perhaps the most important of these were discussions took place under the aegis of UN Habitat on a Draft Document towards a “New Urban Agenda” that will help guide the Habitat III convening scheduled for later this year in Quito, Ecuador.

The rationale for another major gathering on cities is difficult to refute.  As the document’s introduction makes clear, our global demographic continues its rapid shift towards urban areas.  Predictions now are that, by 2050, as many as 70% of global inhabitants will reside in cities making urbanization “one of the 21st century’s most transformative trends.”

These meetings were largely upbeat, highlighting significant improvements in the quality of lives of urban residents since the UN first took up the challenges of cities in the mid-1970s.  Delegations were generous in their acknowledgment of the technological, economic and cultural innovations so often characteristic of cities.  As mostly urban dwellers themselves (even when not serving in New York) delegates seemed grateful for the opportunity to do their part to enhance the longer-term quality of urban settings.

As we know, cities are places of cultural and ethnic diversity; they also, as UN Women duly noted at a related event this week on “Movements of Refugees and Migrants,” provide places of hospitality and employment opportunities for migrants who often find within cities both a base line acceptance along with a community of ex-pats to help ease what can often be a frustrating and lonely transition.  Cities are magnets for the underemployed and dispossessed, but also for the entitled and ambitious.  Cities allow people to redefine themselves, to test their skills and talents, to become something other than what had been “planned out” for them by others.

But cities are also places of distraction and suspicion.  They breed anonymity and emotional disconnection.  City residents are so often found staring into tiny smart phone screens rather than seeking out what little sky lies beyond the tops of buildings.  People in cities become more comfortable with the insides of transit stations than with farmlands or watersheds.  They are part of increasingly relentless, market-driven environments with vast options for consumption and entertainment far beyond those found in other settlements.  And there are times when an endless range of options makes it difficult to make – and hold fast to – any decision, be it about consumptioin or more personal matters.  Sometimes there are so many tempting dishes on the menu it takes many frustrating minutes to figure out just what you want to order.

In our work with environmental mapping (Green Map) we have noted, time and again, the growing impact of human and technological innovation on urban living, offering pathways to make such living more convenient and helping to solve infrastructure related problems that were previously resistant to change.  But we have also noted the degree to which peoples’ (even basic) knowledge about their urban environment is flimsy and compromised.  While advances can regularly be cited related to urban poverty reduction, protecting wildlife habitats, enhancing food security, expanding waterfront access, and “greening” our energy use and modes of transportation, too many urban residents continue to “go small,” seeing mostly what is on the screens right in front of them instead of grasping the issues and connections that that will give us the best chance to move beyond still-current threats to the longer-term achievement of sustainable urban living.

Part of what we need to see now is that larger picture that Peru and others provided during the Habitat discussions: In addition to attention to things like the preservation of cultural heritage and fortifying disaster preparedness and relief in this unsettling time of climate fluctuation, Peru also cited a critical need to enhance urban-rural connections, including a renewed respect by city dwellers for the lifestyles and livelihoods of a shrinking rural populace.

This last agenda is easier said than done.   Until and unless there is a crisis of access (or until we need a vacation break from our urban chaos), city folks too often tend to take rural areas and their inhabitants for granted.   Collectively, we don’t think much about the ways in which our food is grown and produced.  We don’t worry much about the security and sustainability of our reservoirs and watersheds.   We don’t pay much attention to the people who mine our minerals, maintain our cross-country roads or bury the cables for our internet upgrades.   And we almost willfully ignore the lifestyles of people – indigenous and not – who choose to reside beyond the bright lights of cities, people who resist joining the throngs seeking opportunity, security, convenience and endless distraction in urban settings.

Changing this dynamic portends benefits for many, including those who still reside in rural areas and whose issues are often buried under an avalanche of city-focused policy and city-obsessed media.  What is now required, as the Food and Agricultural Organization noted during the South-South discussions, is a new form of cooperation on matters of vital, common interest, a new way (as the “New Urban Agenda” document referred to it) of “conceiving urban-rural linkages.”

This “conceiving” must go beyond rivers and melons to embrace common efforts to reduce our eco-footprint and create reciprocal and tangible regard for diverse lifestyles that reflect important aspects of our human character.   As we cannot flourish without urban innovation and diversity neither can we flourish without deep connections to the land and its biodiversity which surrounds us, or to the people who live with and cherish such connections.  As Cuba noted this week, sustainable development cannot be achieved without the active participation of global “south” countries, but neither can it be achieved in the absence of the skills, care and wisdom of their diverse rural peoples.

A representative of one of those rural peoples – the Sami – came to the Indigenous Forum this week seeking (as did others) redress and reconciliation for what was termed policies of “forced assimilation.”  Whether we like it or not, in an age of climate-related famine, weather-related disasters and widespread armed violence, much of what is driving urban growth feels a bit “forced” as well. We urge Habitat III to do everything possible to continue on the path to make urban centers thrive.  But city life can be vital without being inevitable.  Preserving, enhancing and respecting the “rural option” should be understood as being in the best interests of urban dwellers and constitutes a major objective for those tasked with defining urban interests.

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