Thousands of experts, politicians, slum-dwellers and activists are meeting in Vancouver hoping to plan a way forward for the world's growing cities.
The World Urban Forum will discuss ways to make city life sustainable against a backdrop of rising urban populations.
United Nations estimates suggest more than half of the world's people will live in urban areas by the end of 2007.
Anna Tibaijuka, head of the UN Habitat agency, wants governments and donors to take the impact of rapid urbanisation more seriously.
She answered a selection of your questions.
Q: People move where the job opportunities are, but do our cities really have the infrastructure to support this? Living in a place like Bangalore which is ripping at its seams, a place which cannot take any more people, makes just travelling to your work place a Herculean task.
Divya, Bangalore, India
Anna Tibaijuka: People move to cities attracted by opportunities. Cities need to create conditions to respond to growing infrastructure, housing and transport demands. We cannot prevent cities from growing what we need to do is to invest in infrastructure necessary to accommodate growing urban populations. The problem is not too many people in a city; the challenge is to ensure that cities are livable for all inhabitants.
In order to respond to this challenge, it is important for governments to balance regional and territorial development in order to encourage the growth of smaller cities, at the same time, central and local governments need to put more resources into social amenities. As various examples around the world show that it is possible to shorten travelling times with better infrastructure and more efficient transport system to make commuting less of a burden.
Q: If the world's economies were not abandoning the agrarian way of life maybe we wouldn't be dealing with this issue. The unfortunate reality is that many people cannot make a living by traditional means as the trend towards corporate farming and massive government subsidies leaves the individual farmer with nothing to reap, even if he sows. Isn't this phenomenon one of necessity not one of preference?
Freddy Morgan, Philadelphia, USA
Anna Tibaijuka: Economically subsistence farming is losing ground even in less advanced countries, basically because of improved mechanisation and economies of scale. The idea of people tilling their own farms is no longer viable. History has shown that urban development is closely linked to the industrialisation of agriculture which tends to push people off the land. People then move to cities because they think they will be better off but the reality in many cities is that they end up in slums looking for work. In a democracy you cannot prevent freedom of movement what you can try to do is balance rural and urban development in a more sustainable manner.
Q: People migrate from rural parts to urban areas to find jobs and health care and schools and universities. Why doesn't the UN urge governments to improve their rural people living conditions?
Ruhollah Mirzanejad, Tehran, Iran
Anna Tibaijuka: There are many agencies within the UN that aim to improve the lives of the rural poor, such FAO, IFAD etc. However, until recently, most UN agencies were convinced that poverty was deepest in rural areas. The new UN-Habitat's State of the World's Cities Report 2006/7 shows that locus of poverty is shifting to urban areas. In fact the urbanisation of poverty is now a stark reality. UN-Habitat is convinced that if we do not tackle urban poverty now, the problem will become unmanageable in the future. Our position is to encourage policies to address both rural and urban poverty.
Q: Capacity building is crucial to help remedy the effects of poverty experienced in squatter settlements, and eco-friendly development will help ensure a good quality of life for future generations. But can we achieve both?
Nina Pant, Brisbane, Australia
Anna Tibaijuka: If the cities of the world are going to become environmentally and socially sustainable, it is going to take more than financial resources. Capacity building is critical if local authorities are going to succeed in making their cities inclusive. This requires making local government officials sensitive to the need of the urban poor and training them to establish methods of dialogue and participation in order to develop pro-poor policies. At UN-Habitat we have numerous programmes to help improve the management of cities and human settlements all over the world.
Q: Do you think it would help to educate rural children by teaching them the values of their actual environment instead of teaching them ideals of societies that are not their own?
Emily Laughnan, Brooklyn, USA
Anna Tibaijuka:Education that teaches values of the environment should be done in every place either a city or a village. Students need to be encouraged to connect the local problems with the global whether it is in about the environment or the economic well being of communities. Unfortunately, we have seen very often that in some places students -and teachers- are not aware of these problems and the possible solutions that can be implemented. In other words if we are to improve our human settlements we need to approach it holistically and our policies must involve everyone from urban planners through to teachers. This is why some of our projects are increasingly beginning to include elements of capacity building and social education.
Q: Global cities are growing over and over in an unprecedented fashion and right here in Morocco there's a massive construction of the tall and ordinary buildings. But surely it's important that we pay careful attention to the green spaces?
Zak, Casablanca, Morocco
Anna Tibaijuka: No doubt, sustainable urban development requires that urban planners must think in terms of achieving a balance between the built and the natural environment. Cities and towns need to be integrated into their environment; they need to reduce their ecological footprint and ensure that their demand on the surrounding environment is sustainable. As part of this process, the greening of urban areas is critical not only in order to provide recreational facilities but also to help minimise the heat and pollutants emitted by cities.
Q: UN Habitat sees cities in sub regional zones, some for sustainable communities and others as bio-diversity nature habitats, protected from people. Is the UN proposing compulsory resettlements and control grids?
Martin Haynes, London, UK
Anna Tibaijuka: In a democracy you cannot stop people from voting with their feet. However, you can manage the process of migration by encouraging integrated rural and urban development. Within urban areas, UN-Habitat's policy has been and continues to be to encourage local authorites to recognise the shelter needs of the urban poor. This means that the UN is against the arbitrary illegal eviction of the poor.
Instead what the UN promotes is some form of security of tenure for slum dwellers. The idea is to allow communities to develop overtime important social, cultural and economic ties that are basic to maintain their livelihoods, though of course in some cases it is important to move the poor when they have settled on hazardous land. UN-Habitat's Global Campaigns on Good Governance and Secure Tenure promotes the inclusive city where the poor can also exercise their right to the city.
Q: Some places hold promise - like Tokyo - developing from a virtual parking lot after WWII to the relatively well ordered, safe and clean metropolis of today. Is there any association or organization which compiles and facilitates the exchange of information between governments to tackle the same urban problems?
Ren, Tokyo, Japan
Anna Tibaijuka: One of the primary purposes of UN-Habitat is to advocate better human settlements all over the world. Whether we are talking about small human settlements or mega-cities the idea is to get governments and local authorities to manage the process of rapid urbanisation. UN-Habitat was specifically set up to meet this goal. We have even set up the Best Practice Programme, which was initiated one decade ago, with the aim of compiling, analyzing, systematizing and exchanging urban practices across the world.
This very week in Vancouver, we are holding the third session of the World Urban Forum in order to bring together urban planners, policy makers from around the world to discuss and the debate sustainable urbanisation. It is clearly important for us to continue to share ideas and plan action for a sustainable world.
State of the World's Cities Report 2006/7 is published by UN-Habitat.