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Natural and Urban Settings Both Need Our Attention

Photo: Curitiba
Curitiba, Brazil is often cited as a city that has much to teach about new urbanism and public transportation. Photo: marcusrg, Flickr Creative Commons


By Luis A. Ubiñas 

In the 20 years since 172 countries came together for the first Earth Summit in Rio, the world has undergone an extraordinary transformation. Seven billion people today inhabit a planet that is safer, freer, healthier and more prosperous.

Yet, we are still moving too slowly toward a world that is sustainable, that promotes social justice and that furthers prosperity for all. Rio +20 represents an extraordinary opportunity to move forward on these fronts.

How we handle the growing challenge of climate change is an essential part of building a sustainable planet and promoting social justice.  A warmer planet means more droughts, the disappearance of coastal communities and mass migrations – which disproportionately harms the poor and disenfranchised.

Sadly, there is little indication the world’s leaders are prepared to seriously tackle this challenge.

But there are glimmers of hope coming from the world’s forests — a front line in the effort to slow climate change and conserve biodiversity. Since 1992, thirty of the world’s most forested countries have adopted an innovative idea for protecting forests: granting ownership rights to communities that reside in them.

Where local communities have taken ownership of forests the result has been lower rates of deforestation, fires and carbon emissions. Since forests also provide livelihoods for millions, clarifying and recognizing ownership rights spurs economic growth.

Still progress is uneven. New land rights laws are often applied narrowly and there’s a growing land grab by commercial interests with little concern for the communities that reside there.

That’s why the international community must build on past success at Rio + 20 by making a new commitment to turning over billions of hectares of forest to local communities; working with the private sector to clarify land and forest rights; and promoting new public-private partnerships. Above all, it must ensure that the legal rights already recognized by governments are fully realized in local communities.

Taking action on these fronts will lay the groundwork for a more sustainable and equitable future —as it did 20 years ago.

While environmental progress is important, enduring development success relies on broadening the global conversation about sustainability to the world’s cities. Already half of the world’s population lives in cities, and all of the world’s growth over the next four decades—some 2.3 billion people—will occur there.

Cities are the proverbial ground zero of sustainable development and poverty reduction. They are the crossroads of multiple social justice issues, including democratic participation, human rights, economic fairness and opportunity, education and artistic expression. They are central to any discussion of global energy use, water conservation, pollution management, green construction and climate control.

Photo: Luis Ubinas, president of Ford Foundation
Luis Ubinas

We need to be thinking about what the just and prosperous city of tomorrow looks like. What urban practices will enable low-income communities to participate more broadly in the economic, social and cultural opportunities that are the hallmark of urban areas?

Building sustainable metropolitan communities that engage the talents and aspirations of all their residents’ demands reaching beyond municipal borders and pursuing regional solutions. It requires policy frameworks that empower city leaders to take action, and it means innovative partnerships between the civic and private sectors in areas such as technology and fostering economic opportunity.

The challenges in promoting a sustainable economy that advances human development are significant. Rio+20 is a unique opportunity to explore how rapid global transformations can be harnessed to advance sustainability, promote social justice and improve the lives of all people.

Twenty years after the Rio Earth Summit, we have a chance to uphold our responsibility as stewards of the natural and man-made environments that sustain us. Let’s make the most of this moment.


Luis A. Ubiñas is president of the Ford Foundation.


  1. […] “Urbanization can improve lives and build a healthier planet,” said Luis Ubiñas, president of the Ford Foundation, in opening the panel event entitled, The Sustainable and Just City: Rio+20 and Beyond. “It is also possible to turn a city’s creative and entrepreneurial energy into a force for reducing poverty, increasing economic growth and reaching the twin goals of Rio+20, environmental sustainability and shared prosperity.” (Read the guest blog post for National Geographic News Watch by Luis Ubiñas: Natural and Urban Settings Both Need Our Attention) […]