Mass urbanization demands reimagining community life, says BIC

October 21, 2016
The rise of mega-cities over the past decades has been one of the most striking phenomena of our time. “Urban centers have become the dominant habitat for humankind,” wrote the Secretary General in his report on the Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. Photo credit: New York Times

QUITO, Ecuador — We need a fundamental reimagining of collective living, says the Baha'i International Community (BIC) in a statement released this week, titled "New Patterns of Community Life in an Urbanizing World".

The statement addresses the Habitat III conference organized by the United Nations in Quito, which ended yesterday. This was the third UN conference on sustainable urban development, the first having taken place in Vancouver in 1976.

In the past decade, for the first time in history, the number of human beings living in urban settings has surpassed the 50% mark. This shift from rural to urban settlements is one of the most significant issues the world faces today, with profound social, humanitarian, and ecological implications.

"Urbanization in its current incarnation is not a process that can continue indefinitely," states the BIC in the document. "Large-scale migration to urban centers has, in many cases, led to social fragmentation, the depletion of limited ecological resources, and profound feelings of isolation and despair."

The statement proposes that to deal with the formidable challenges arising from the accelerating mass urban-rural migrations across the planet "will require conceptions of life in rural and urban settings to be thoroughly reimagined, drawing on the accumulated knowledge of the past, the scientific advances of the present, and a compelling vision of the future".

To navigate a path forward, argues the BIC, will require "sustained investigation for the foreseeable future". The document highlights certain core issues that merit attention. "Prominent among these is an explicit concern with reviving the concept of community," it states.

"If community is to further the progress of society in its own right—complementing the roles played by individuals and social institutions—a much more expansive conception of community life must be actively embraced. New patterns of action and interaction will have to be built, and new forms of relationship and association constructed."

The document addresses a range of issues, including the need to integrate groups and populations that have traditionally been marginalized, to open spaces for the participation of people at different levels of decision-making, and to help foster a sense of common identity and united vision. Drawing on the experience of the worldwide Baha'i community, the BIC also emphasizes the vital role of education in creating prosperous and healthy human settlements, particularly as a way to enable young people to "translate high ideals into practical realities and make a meaningful contribution to the fortunes of humanity".

Habitat III, formally known as the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, is part of an effort to reinvigorate global political commitment to the sustainable development of towns, cities, and rural settlements, according to the UN. The conference involved as many as 45,000 people—including government leaders, UN officials, and civil society representatives.

"Among the main ideas that the Baha'i International Community hoped to bring to the discourse at Habitat III is that efforts to create a greater sense of community among individuals, whether in highly urbanized environments or rural villages, is the key to creating an urban agenda that promotes genuine prosperity and human happiness," said Serik Tokbolat, a representative of the BIC to the United Nations. "And this requires serious consideration of the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life."

Conceived in this way, Mr. Tokbolat explained, efforts to foster a sense of community can help national governments, local authorities, and civil society organizations in their search for ways to improve the nature of community life in both urban and rural settings.