Voice of America Online

By Phil Mercer

Helping the transformation of sprawling and overcrowded cities around the world, including those in Africa and Asia, into sustainable, modern centers is the focus of an international conference that has started in Australia.

More than 100 of the world’s leading thinkers in the area of urban planning are in Sydney to discuss ways to build more liveable and green global cities. Among the challenges communities face are adapting to climate change as well as shifting energy, food and transportation demands.

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities and the proportion is increasing all the time. By 2040, it is estimated that 70 percent of people will live in urban areas.

A conference at the University of Sydney is grappling with the monumental challenges that lie ahead.

Delegates have called on civic authorities and governments to show bold leadership to improve public transport, increase housing density and to protect society’s most vulnerable members.

The speakers include Tom Murphy, the former mayor of Pittsburgh, who was responsible for transforming a dying industrial city into one of the most innovative hubs in the United States. He believes that other cities, around the world, could learn from the Pittsburgh experience.

“I grew up in a city that we would say we did not know there were stars at night or that the sky was blue because it was always polluted. Cities need ‘who could have imagined’ moments. A Chinese city that is polluted and people wear masks because of the pollution, one day, maybe because of good leadership the air is clean, and people will say ‘who could have imagined?’ Cities need to build their future on those ‘who could have imagined’ moments to be successful.” said Murphy.

The conference is looking at ways to help sprawling urban areas in Africa adapt to population growth and the effects of climate change.

Professor Edward Blakely, from the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney, says huge challenges will have to be confronted.

“The interesting thing about Africa, you can have some of the most modern, exciting cities in the world. In South Africa, Johannesburg has quarters in it that would be just like Sydney or New York but within 20 kilometers you are in places that are not fit for human habitation. Africa has to go through a tremendous transformation,” stated Blakely.

The problems in Australia's biggest and most congested city will also be considered, as Sydney groans under the weight of clogged roads and an over-stretched public transport system.

The Sydney conference runs to July 27.