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Nine hours with Al Gore

Judy Baker's picture

On Thursday I had the honor and privilege to make a presentation on issues of sustainable urbanization and urban poverty at a small summit organized by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore in New York City. Vice President Gore is writing a book about drivers of global change that will cover a range of topics including population and demographics, which was the focus of the meeting. 

His team identified about 12 experts from a range of disciplines—a sociologist; demographer; geographer; researchers working on issues of family, aging, and gender; a writer; and an economist to explore patterns, trends, and current research. I was on a panel along with Saskia Sassen of Columbia University and David Owen of the New Yorker magazine. We all sat in a small room for 9 hours, presenting different perspectives on demographic change, each contributing from our own disciplines. 

It was a remarkable experience—Vice President Gore was fully engaged with unwavering focus all day long providing insightful comments, raising questions, and testing hypotheses with the group on the topics at hand. Throughout the discussions, the issue of climate change was a common thread. Vice President Gore has done tremendous work to bring climate change to the fore of the policy debate, both in the U.S. and internationally, and I have no doubt that this next book will bring new dimensions into the global dialogue on the topic, including that of preparing for urbanization in the 21st century.

Since I am by nature an optimist, I see the unprecedented wave of urbanization in the decades to come as a tremendous opportunity. Indeed, with an additional two billion people expected in cities in the coming 20 years, there is a lot to prepare for.  Urbanization and growth move in parallel so this global change bodes well for development as a whole, but with so many people coming to cities, there are also urgent needs for infrastructure, services, and safe housing to accommodate them. 

Holding on to the optimist view, this demographic transition provides a unique opportunity to shape cities in the developing world for the future. We have some good examples of what it takes to build sustainable cities, and to address poverty and slums. Investments in efficient and affordable transport systems and proactive land use planning can minimize sprawl and energy consumption, curtail informal settlements in high risk areas, and promote inclusive cities.  Integrating climate change and disaster risk reduction policies into urban planning and management, and bridging communities and local governments to work together on local solutions can help build resilient cities. 

The hard part, however, is political will and sustained commitment by both cities as well as the development community. Building roads, sidewalks, drainage canals, and water and sanitation networks, and implementing policy reforms to legalize informal settlements may not be glamorous for policy makers, but these things do make an enormous difference to the one billion slum dwellers in the developing world. With leaders like Al Gore hearing these messages and striving for global change, there is hope. 

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