World Urban Forum: Affordable Housing is necessary for our sustainable future

Posted: 10th July 2022 Emma Ahmed, Director, Altair International

Reflections on the World Urban Forum (WUF) from Altair International

As we urbanists gathered in Katowice, Poland to talk about cities, sustainability, and our urban future, I wondered about the benefits of such large and unwieldy conferences where people fly in from across the globe to convene together in one space. For some it’s about networking, others about sitting in on discussions and talks, of learning from others, meeting new people with similar interests and having in-depth discussions on all things urban…but on reflection, its actually about something far greater, far more powerful and with genuine ability to change the future. World Urban Forum is about the collective, global, solidarity and inclusivity, it’s about climate justice. It’s about the coming together of people across sectors, across regions and continents and agreeing that when urbanism is done sustainably it has the power to completely and positively change the future for the next generation.

Asia is on the ‘frontlines’ of climate change, with large swathes of its population overexposed to sea level rises by living in coastal cities, huge numbers of people are unprotected from extreme heat, severe flooding events and droughts which are on the rise, and more frequent dangerous hurricanes. Markedly, countries with the lowest levels of GDP are at the greatest risk of negative climate change impacts (McKinsey, 2020).

The world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change are also urbanising at the fastest pace: especially countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Better urban planning and scaling up of low-carbon innovation can cultivate carbon neutral, sustainable, liveable and healthier cities, but vast amounts of private finance is needed to bridge the gap between public financing (which is typically low in emerging markets), and the cost of low-carbon transition (Ervine, 2014).

Urban affordable housing is a profound global challenge, with at least 1.2 billion people living in inadequate housing conditions. This challenge is acute in rapidly urbanising Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, as urban population growth outpaces official capacity and results in sprawl and slum formation, exacerbating the vulnerability of city populations. This housing crisis is inseparable from the worsening climate emergency. Many African and Asian countries with large housing deficits are also highly vulnerable to climate risks, and many cities are increasingly vulnerable to environmental threats and emergencies. The adoption of concrete as the primary construction material has caused heat island effects in dense urban areas contributing further to rising temperatures and making city living increasingly unbearable (Mohajerani, Bakaric, Jeffrey-Bailey, 2017), especially in high-rise informal settlements. The pandemic showed us how this vast inequality in quality, affordable housing also exacerbated health outcomes for the lower-income sectors and minority populations.

Growth outpaces official capacity. If unchecked these urban climate predicaments will continue to increase. Low-income groups need access to new, more efficient, sustainable building designs and technologies. It is only through sustainable solutions that the tensions between economic development, social welfare and equality, urban growth, housing provision, access to clean energy, good quality residential services, and environmental conditions can be alleviated.

WUF was a moment to reflect on the importance of this challenge and to take seriously the scale of the issue, to look to it as a moment of opportunity where we can and do have the capability to address the issues, with affordable housing being a crucial element of that solution. Sure, it takes vast amounts of investment and a huge and collective effort, but it’s not insurmountable if we work together and it can truly transform opportunities for future generations who want to continue to inhabit this beautiful, unique planet. WUF was a reflection of that desire to see change and make it happen. It won’t change anything in and of itself but it represents the things which are needed in order to do so- solidarity and inclusivity…and now we need to get on and deliver.


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