Joan Clos has held many titles in his life – doctor, mayor, minister and ambassador. Late in 2010 he added a new title to his resume: Executive Director of United Nations Habitat. In this new role he will have the opportunity to bring his considerable talents in urban planning, housing, job creation and diplomacy to bear for the benefit of urbanizing communities worldwide.
Dr. Clos is perhaps best known for his work as Mayor of Barcelona from 1997-2006. There he transformed a city in advance of hosting the Olympic Games, setting the city and region on a path to prosperity that continues to be a model for other community builders.
During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., Dr. Clos discussed his views on the challenges facing both highly developed cities and cities in the developing world. He also laid out some of his early priorities for his four-year term at UN-HABITAT.
Significant issues facing developed cities include energy over-consumption, high greenhouse gas emissions and the expanding gap between the haves and the have-nots in society. For cities in the developing world, Clos suggests that the combination of rural to urban migration and the absence of industrial jobs in the urban areas are the biggest causes that give rise to slums. To these causes he adds the utter lack of urban planning and local governments with inadequate authority and capacity as significant challenges for such a large portion of the earth’s population.
However, Dr. Clos is nothing if not a practical visionary with a long track record of achievable results to his credit. His strategies for progress rely on the absolute value of land, and urban land in particular, and on the role of the city as economic catalyst in the absence of private-sector-driven industrialization.
Starting with HABITAT and leveraging other UN agencies, the executive director expects to focus on new urban planning models, improvements to the legal and governing structures for urban areas in the developing world and job creation. This is a far more ambitious agenda than the work presently undertaken at HABITAT, to upgrade slums for example.
For the people who work in, for and with cities, Dr. Clos is as popular as an international rock star. In a single sentence he can compare the road projects of ancient Roman cities to those in present-day Manhattan and to the Kenyan slums of Kibera. For city leaders to have such an advocate at UN-HABITAT is like having Bono host a concert for a charitable cause. The possibilities are monumental.