Aseel Zahran, Outreach Officer at Generations For Peace Institute, and Chris Todd, Communications Officer at Generations For Peace
Today is World Cities Day. As the world’s population grows, so do rates of global urbanisation. With the number of people living in urban settings expected to reach 68% by 2050, an 18% increase from today, the challenges facing cities are ballooning.
From increased pressure on transport and infrastructure to new needs facing sanitation and resulting from overcrowding, urbanisation at such a scale in such a brief period of time is wrought with obstacles to be overcome.
These challenges have been recognised on a global scale by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) – a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity – which set out to address the mounting levels of urbanisation through Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. Growth in the number of megacities and booming urban migration patterns have resulted in increased urban poverty, increased concentration of broadened diversity, and as a result, increased violence in slums, which are currently home to 828 million people, worldwide.
This sets the stage for expansive and systematic violent conflict: communities once geographically separated from others with differing identities – whether based in to religion, ethnicity, tribe, race, etc. – will rapidly be placed in direct proximity to those with identities that are seen and understood to be in opposition with their own. I have seen this first-hand through my involvement with Generations For Peace. Especially within border communities like those in Kyrgyzstan, the Republic of Macedonia, Lebanon, and more, it is easy to see the ways in which converging yet opposing communities often experience spikes in violent conflict. New and rising cities are likely to face a similar phenomenon.
While the opportunity for violent conflict rises with rapid urbanisation, so does the chance to fulfil this year’s World Cities Day theme and create sustainable and resilient cities through conflict transformation and peacebuilding. Cities need to be supported in order to become resilient and develop their capacity to absorb the impact of migration, crisis, and general hazards, and the best place for much of that support comes from within. By creating a deeper understanding of, broader acceptance across, and more thorough integration between varying or opposing communities as they begin to interact and overlap in day-to-day life, we create a sustainable and resilient city supported from the grassroots within.
Throughout the course of more than a decade and across 50 countries throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, Generations For Peace has researched an array of conflict contexts, learned innovative approaches to address them, and implemented impactful programmes that spark sustained peace from the grassroots. The cities existing today and those casting their shadows on the horizon tomorrow will face the same challenges in social cohesion that we have learned to address through four fundamental values: youth leadership, community empowerment, active tolerance, and responsible citizenship.
When we talk about sustainability, one of the first places we must look is to those whose influence and impact will outlive us. The growing global population, especially in regions where urbanisation is set to expand most rapidly within the next 30 years, is the first place we should focus our peacebuilding and conflict transformation efforts.
It is among youth that we often see violence come to surface most consistently, yet at the grassroots community level, it is in the same demographics that we can expect to find hope most readily available for a peaceful future.
Youth leadership in efforts surrounding peace is currently a central theme on a global scale: the UN has adopted UNSCR 2250 on Youth, Peace, and Security, highlighting the need for youth in peace, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres has emphasised their influence time and time again, saying, “I believe in the power of young people. Peace, economic dynamism, social justice, tolerance – all these and more depend on tapping into the potential of youth.”
By breaking down the often long-standing barriers and building acceptance and social cohesion among youth that hail from different and opposing backgrounds, we create cities in which young people learn to engage with one another, building a more peaceful future despite urban growing pains.
You’ve heard of the notion that change comes from within. This idea doesn’t only revolve around the individual – it manifests in the community. As cities grow, creating the grounds for violent conflict to emerge, they will need support not only from the diplomatic levels, but also from the grassroots – from those who are living in the city, making the city their home, and interacting with others who are doing the same.
A focus on the grassroots is needed when creating sustainable and resilient cities. The men and women, children and youth who are facing daily the challenges of rapid urbanisation are the ones who are most acutely aware of the exact obstacles standing between their lives and contexts, and sustained peace.
UN SDG 11 might be the most directly related to the sustainability and resilience of cities, but it is far from the only one to influence that context. Take for example, Goal 10, “Reduced Inequalities,” which centers on ever-widening social disparities, especially in wealth, and the need to promote inclusion of all, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, or ability.
Communities need to be empowered from within, embracing those that are seen as different – regardless of the reason – in order to create sustainable cities built on lasting peace. We have seen the impact in our own programmes addressing women, those with disabilities, and those with little or no opportunity to work or be employed. Empowerment from the grassroots within communities goes a long way in transforming conflict and building sustained peace.
In order to reach a place in which communities are equipped and prepared to build peace, we must introduce a mentality of tolerance and a setting in which that can be put into action. Increasing exposure to those of differing and opposing backgrounds is an important step in this process.
Yet if the close proximity provided to groups by something like migration to or expansion of a city does not create a space for increased understanding of others, we create conflict instead of peace.Embracing the 16th Sustainability Goal, “Peace, justice and strong institutions,” can form spaces in which active tolerance can be learned, recognised, and practiced.
From within the structures and institutions – schools, religious and community centers, etc. – existing and being built within growing cities, spring an opportunity to not only display and teach tolerance, but also to put the accepting mindset into action through engagement, dialogue, and sustained interaction.
Finally, since a community is made up of the individuals that live within it, it follows that each citizen must have a mindset of contributing positively to that community, especially in contexts presented by expanding cities and slums.
One way to do this is to encourage community engagement activities such as volunteering. This is the cornerstone of Generations For Peace and many other organisations working to prevent and transform violent conflict the world over. The more we are directly engaged within our own communities, especially if they are undergoing expansion or change and incorporating new and unfamiliar ideas, identities, and backgrounds, the more opportunity we have to foster a deeper understanding of one another and not just avoid, but rather prevent and transform violent conflict, building lasting peace in the process.
When we bring our own passions, skills, and expertise together and use those things that make us unique individuals to work toward creating a more resilient and sustainable community – equipping it to withstand growth, hazards, violence, and more – we, in turn, create a more resilient and sustainable city.
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