The United Nations Human Settlement’s Program recently named PennDesign professor Eugenie Birch chair of the World Urban Campaign, an organization that advocates sustainable city development.
Birch is currently a co-director of Penn’s Institute for Urban Research, a interdisciplinary research center that studies sustainable and urban development strategies. She has been working with the WUC since 2009, when it was in its early stages of development, and was elected co-chair in 2010.
The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke to Birch about her previous work with and goals for WUC.
DP: What does the World Urban Campaign do?
EB: Over the years we’ve done some work writing manifestos and documents that talk about importance of cities and urbanization and how important it is to ... not be wasteful with our resources. This objective has gotten more important because of two big things happening in the United Nations in the next two years with the creation of the post-2015 agenda.
DP: Can you tell us more about the post-2015 agenda?
EB: In 2000, the UN issued the Millennium Development Goals, which end in 2015. [While] MDG largely applied to developing countries, the Sustainable Development Goals — [goals that will be addressed in the post-2015 agenda] — will apply to all countries, not just the developing world. That means the scope of the SDG will be broader and will work on two big world issues: climate change and how we deal with sustainability in that context, and poverty alleviation worldwide.
These are aspirational goals — meaning they don’t have legal backing ... But there are new ideas that have emerged since 2000 one of which, of course, is cities and human settlements. By this September, the committees working on this topic will make a proposal through the Secretary-General and we’re pretty sure it will establish the framework.
DP: What’s the second big thing going on in the UN?
EB: The second activity is that we’re working on the program’s Habitat III ... We’ll be focusing on sustainable cities and settlements and what sorts of things need to be done in the coming years. The UN organizes this by asking member states to create national committees which think about what their priorities are. Part of the work of the WUC is to encourage, work with, inform and help national committees as part of preparatory work for Habitat III.
DP: How will your experiences as a Penn professor influence your work as WUC chair?
EB: One of the critical concerns in the next few years is that we expect 3 billion more people to live in cities — doubling the urban population. The speed with which this is happening is overwhelming but not impossible to deal with if we, as a world and individual nations and cities, think about how to manage this growth well.
The growth will be largely in three places: Asia, Africa and the U.S., but the growth in the U.S. will be different from the other two. In Asia and Africa, it will be dominated by huge growth in informal housing, such as slums, where there are no services or security and we will have to think about how to accommodate that. In addition to how we think about accommodating, we have to think abut how we can upgrade.
We need to think about ... how we’re going to move people around places. Everyone would like to have cars, but they’re not the most efficient or green way to move people so we need to think about how mass transit will work in these cities. We need to think of innovative ways to house people, feed people and transport them to their jobs. We need innovative ways to supply heathcare and education and most importantly, innovate ways to make sure that people moving in to the city can find jobs.
It’s a complex world out there. These are issues that through my academic careers I’ve taught, done research and engaged in practice.
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