April 7, 2014 9:59 pm

Unplanned development is the killer in disasters

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Spain's Industry Minister Joan Clos©Sergio Perez

Joan Clos: incentives are the key

Barcelona is often held up as a model for modern urban development.

In the 19th century, Ildefons Cerdà, an engineer, laid out ambitious plans for the city’s expansion beyond its medieval walls.

The city is one of those rare places that has managed to combine industry and business with tourism, and it has also encouraged thoughtful architects to create some of the world’s finest public spaces.

The city became so revered for its intelligent investment and imaginative planning that it won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gold Medal in 1999 – usually only awarded to individuals.

The mayors who made the city the urban paradigm that it has become – and received that medal – were Pasqual Maragall (mayor during the 1992 Olympics) and his successor Joan Clos (mayor 1997-2006).

Originally a medical doctor, Dr Clos, after two terms in office, went on to be a minister, then ambassador, and ultimately the Executive Director of the UN Human Settlements Programme, Habitat, and under secretary-general of the UN.

So it is perhaps not surprising when Dr Clos says the thing that makes a city resilient is planning.

More than half of the world’s population now lives in a city, and Dr Clos says: “Most of the growth in urbanisation will be in the global south. It’s about 98 per cent. And somewhere between 50 and 60 per cent of that growth will be in informal settlements, completely unplanned.

“There are three sources of urbanisation. First is demographic growth. Second is immigration from the country. The third is speculation: the recategorisation of rural and perimeter land as urban.

“In developing countries where land value is a major asset, there’s a tendency to categorise peri-urban land [on the edges of towns and cities] as urban to increase its value. This is problematic, as a small rural plot becomes a large city site. The result will be unplanned sprawl, low density. In terms of sustainability it’s a disaster and it’s a global issue.”

So what does Dr Clos suggest to make a resilient city? “We advocate two kinds of action,” he says.

“National urban policies, for the government to take clear ownership of urban policies. This requires legislative coherence and co-operation between ministers. It needs intervention. Without that, immigrants will always gravitate only to the largest city. You need a distributed network of cities and you need incentives.’

What might those incentives be? “Investment. Only investment,” Dr Clos replies. ”Institutions, transport, infrastructure.

“At the local level, we need a planned city. The unplanned city is less dense and less efficient, it has worse services, worse communications.”

Unplanned cities must be changed into planned cities, he says. “It sounds obvious but, if we are talking about resilience, most disasters and loss of life result from overcrowding and building in an unplanned manner.”

He adds that planners need to take into account the effects of recent disasters and extreme weather events worldwide.

‘There are no magical solutions to making a city resilient,” he says.

“In flooding or earthquakes, if there are no proper roads, people can’t escape and the emergency services can’t even reach the victims.”

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