The appalling and callous terrorist attack in Nairobi has highlighted the vulnerability of our big cities to external threat, be it man-made insurgency or natural disasters such as earthquakes or storm surges. Given moreover that 80 per cent of the world’s population now live within 50 miles of the sea, changing environmental and climatic factors are increasingly likely to result in flooding, pollution and health risks.
There is a growing urban crisis in much of the world’s sprawling urban centres, brought about by massive expansion of population, creating huge pressures on infrastructure, services and indeed governance, especially among millions of peripherally located slum dwellers. Great mega-cities such as Mumbai, Dhaka, Lagos or Cairo face particular challenges on account of their scale and complexity, but they are not alone as the experience of Nairobi, with its huge slums, lacking adequate services and shelter, shows.
It is highly likely that the 21st century will see more small-scale urban strife, whether through coordinated riots as happened in London and Stockholm, targeted terrorist attacks as in Mumbai and Nairobi, or wider city-based civil wars as is happening in Syria today. This frequently involves confrontation between the formal city authorities and those, often criminal elements, which have taken over the city fringes and slum areas as has happened in Kingston, Jamaica and Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities
All this points to the key importance of disaster responsiveness - and preparedness - by local governments, working in partnership with central government and the emergency services. This is why CLGF advocates for strong, democratic and accountable local government which works in partnership with central and provincial government to confront the challenges facing our ever-expanding urban centres. Why CLGF promotes international knowledge sharing - for example on counteracting urban terrorism. Why CLGF works to improve the capacity of its members, especially in areas such as good governance.
The new urban challenges of the future will be many - terrorist access to weapons of mass destruction, use of cyber warfare - which could paralyze our cities, impact of global warming, desertification and depleting energy resources. As the UN looks to the post-2015 development agenda, it is therefore essential that the role of cities and local government and their developmental role are incorporated in the new global framework.
The UN High Level Panel on post-2015 recognised that cities can be engines of growth and they are where economic and commercial activity is centred, where creativity and inventiveness abide. This, and the role of effective local government was also the message that came out of Rio+ 20 and is increasingly acknowledged by development partners such as the EU. It is for this reason that CLGF has designated 2014 as the Year of Developmental Local Government and will be calling on all its members and partners to give effect to this.
All is therefore not doom and gloom: There is much to be gained, much to be achieved by supporting developmental local government and ensuring effective urban governance. However if this optimistic future is to be realised, governance structures will need to be adequately decentralised and provided with proper resources; they will also need to be democratic and accountable to all their citizens. If this is done, disaster responsiveness will be significantly enhanced and the ability to withstand terrorist onslaughts as happened so tragically in Nairobi will be greatly strengthened.