The third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, better known as Habitat III, is taking place at the city of Quito, Ecuador, where diplomats, politicians, urbanists and other stakeholders will gather until 20 October.

In his speech on Sunday, one day before the conference opening, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, stated before an audience of mayors and government leaders, that “transforming our world for the better” means re-making towns and cities through sustainable development.

The much anticipated global meeting happens once in every 20 years and is an opportunity to discuss strategies to develop a sustainable plan for the future of cities in the context of a fast-growing urban population.

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Since the first Habitat conference in 1976, the number of people living in cities has exponentially grown and is expected to reach nearly 70 per cent of the total world population by 2050, according to UN estimates.

At the centre of the Habitat III conference is the New Urban Agenda, whose first draft was presented last September. This 23-page document sets new guidelines for cities to move forward and become more liveable in the next two decades.

The Agenda demands action at all layers of government, civil society, business and the private sector, to help lift up the wider Sustainable Development Goals geared towards 2030.

Among the many issues the conference will target is the lack of adequate housing, which is already one of the biggest challenges cities have to face. Urban areas are expanding rapidly, especially in developing countries, and that expansion is frequently unplanned. In fact, about a quarter of urban dwellers live in slums or informal settlements and an increasing number of poor and vulnerable people live in precarious conditions.

Participants in Quito will also be discussing how to power cities and transports more efficiently, in order to decrease fossil fuel emissions and mitigate the consequences of global warming. UN-Habitat’s World Cities Report 2016 revealed that cities as a whole are responsible for 70 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions and that overcrowded urban areas are more vulnerable to climate change events such as sea-level rise, heat waves, and floods.

Large urban areas are also deeply affected by social inequality. According to the same report, the world is more unequal today that it was twenty years ago, and 75 per cent of the world’s cities have higher levels of income inequalities than two decades ago. Transforming cities into places of inclusion by engaging citizens of all ages, genders, ethnic and religious groups, will also be one of the themes debated on the conference.

Obviously a great deal of work lies ahead of countries and all the stakeholders involved in making cities more sustainable and inclusive, which was stressed out by UN Secretary-General in his opening address: “It is clear that transforming our world for the better means transforming our towns and cities. That means better urban governance, planning and design.”

“It means more investment in adequate and affordable housing, quality infrastructure and basic services. And it means engaging women and girls in making towns and cities safer and more productive for all […] Cities and towns have an immense role to play in ending poverty and building inclusive societies that promote participation by all,” stated Ban Ki-moon.