I am so touched by what the Secretary General has said, most undeserved. It is a great joy to see her in post at Marlborough House, which, incidentally, I remember coming to when I was very small to visit my great grandmother Queen Mary, who lived here. So I have very special memories, I can remember her room upstairs. She would have been very glad that it is still being used.
Can I just say that I am so pleased to join you at the start of what I know is a vitally important conference because you, Ladies and Gentlemen, as champions of local government, are at the coalface of the response to humanity's most pressing challenges. It is increasingly recognised and, indeed, increasingly evident that the sustainable development challenge will be won or lost at the local level, and particularly in cities. And not just in the megacities, of which the Commonwealth has a fair few, but in our secondary and tertiary cities too.
Whatever the statistics and figures we use to try and explain the immense paradigm shift of the world's population from rural to urban dwelling; the numbers are truly staggering, you don't need me to remind you. All of us know of cities already grappling with the acute strains of rapid urbanisation – snarled traffic, air pollution, creeping informal settlement, shortages of everything from clean water and effective sanitation to affordable homes and schools. With approximately three billion additional urban dwellers anticipated by 2050, we would need – very roughly – to build a city the size of Freetown every week somewhere around the globe for at least the next twenty years to accommodate expanding urban populations. I have also heard that, in India, the current rate of urbanisation amounts to thirty people moving to an urban centre every minute. So, if we were transported to rural India now, half of you would have already left for the city in the time I have been speaking!
Ladies and Gentlemen, I can understand why – when faced with this challenge – it may seem too daunting and complex an issue to address. However, it is essential that local government leaders, with the help of planners, engineers and architects, very quickly grip the issue and plan ahead to avoid the uncontrollable sprawl that will disadvantage so many. But I hasten to say that this simply cannot be done through "business as usual". There has to be a radical change to the conventional model of development along the lines of the approach perhaps I have tried to pioneer through my Foundation for Building Community over the past twenty-five years. Therefore, alongside a commitment to the right enabling conditions, regulatory frameworks and financial planning that we hope will emerge in the New Urban Agenda flowing from Habitat III – and that your discussions here will no doubt inform – it is also vital to focus on the development of simple, practical and robust spatial plans to overcome the paralysis and inertia that could otherwise set in.
Now, I believe it is possible to identify a set of simple, plain-speaking guiding principles that can inform rapid, practical action. Our planning approaches must create spatial frameworks to define legible boundaries for mixed-use and mixed-income, walkable neighbourhoods that avoid the need for car travel, if at all possible. By defining and protecting key public spaces, the worlds of everyday living, working, education and leisure are combined and given their appropriate location at the centre of our communities. Above all, if I may say so, we must find a place for Nature even in the heart of our cities, preserving green space and public domains for efficient water management and ensuring synergy between urban and rural functions; and, crucially, we need to create the necessary density, embracing compact, middle-rise development rather than energy-hungry skyscrapers that have completely lost any sense of human scale and risk disconnecting people from their communities and nearby public spaces.
In my view, these simple principles must translate into robust spatial plans and into their practical application in the months and years ahead if we are to avoid a future in which a vast swathe of humanity is consigned to substandard and precarious living conditions. But this is not just about avoiding disaster. Creating places that demonstrate these traits, and which better reflect people's cultures and identity, can help to ensure successful, resilient and harmonious cities, or – to put it another way – places in which people actually want to live!
I know, Ladies and Gentlemen, the newly established Commonwealth Sustainable Cities Network will focus on these issues in the context of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, and as I mentioned they are precisely the issues My Foundation has been working on for over two decades alongside my International Sustainability Unit more recently. In this time, the Foundation has tested these principles in a diverse set of contexts from Jamaica, to Gabon, Sierra Leone and Bahrain; the work in the latter has, incidentally, recently attracted the attention of the United Nations as a potential model for sustainable development in the Middle East. In all of these places, the utility of these core principles has remained undiminished, even though the permutations and form – shaped by local culture, tradition and climatic conditions – will of course differ, thereby creating a unique sense of local place which ironically strikes a social chord with people all over the world who, otherwise, face the prospect of homogenised, mono-cultural and soulless surroundings.
In the hope that it might prove useful to share some of their acquired knowledge, I am so pleased that my Foundation is developing a Rapid Response Planning Framework in collaboration with the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, Commonwealth Association of Planners and my International Sustainability Unit, amongst others. This Framework will provide a set of simple tools for city leaders, planners, engineers and architects to work together to achieve the practical action that is so greatly needed. And I could not be more grateful that many of you here have expressed interest in and potential support for this work and will help to see it through to fruition.
Now, ladies and gentleman – while I have your perhaps dwindling attention – I did just want to acknowledge an important milestone that is being marked this evening. I know Mr. Carl Wright is retiring after some forty years working in international and Commonwealth institutions. This, above all, is a remarkable record of service by any measure, and I can only thank him for all that he has done for the people of the Commonwealth over that time. Thank You.
Needless to say, I very much look forward to seeing the fruits of your collaboration with my Foundation for Building Community and the ISU and to the difference this will make in practical terms to so many people's lives in a rapidly urbanizing world. So, I do hope your conference is a great success.