"The Habitat II Conference and the Future of Cities"
"The Habitat II Conference and the Future of Cities"
William C. Burns, Director, GreenLife Society - North American
In a recent report, the World Resources Institute concluded that "the world
is in the midst of a massive urban transition unlike that of any other time
in history." With urban populations growing at a staggering rate of 170,000
each day, the number of people living in towns and cities will exceed those
residing in rural areas by the turn of the century, with two-thirds of the
world's population projected to live in urban areas by the year 2025.
Thirty-three "mega-cities" will boast at least 8 million residents by 2015,
while more than 500 other cities will be home to a million more people. 16
of the mega-cities will be located in the developing world, with 90% of
overall urban growth occurring in developing nations.
Burgeoning urban populations pose a substantial threat to fragile
ecosystems, public health and the stability of nations. In the context of
the environment, urban areas are often suffused with dangerously high levels
of soot, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides, fly ash and suspended particles.
For example, the Asian Development Bank found levels of suspended
particulate matter in Manila to be 200-400% above guideline levels. A
recent study concluded that air pollution in Chinese cities has increased
the death rate from cancer by 6.2% and lung cancer by a staggering 18.5%
since 1988. World-wide, the World Health Organisation has estimated that
more than one in every three urban dwellers, - 1.1 billion people - have to
breathe unhealthy air.
Further, the urban poor, often homeless (see below), are frequently
compelled to establish informal settlements in ecologically fragile areas.
Many of these settlements are without sewer or garbage service. As a
consequence, accumulated waste and sewage may degrade the land and imperil
local watersheds. Residents of cities often also deplete contiguous rural
areas of water and firewood, undercutting the support systems of residents
in these areas, thus exacerbating flight into cities.
The lion's share of marine pollution is also related to land-based
activities in cities, including the dumping of raw sewage, the runoff of
toxic chemicals, and the release of litter, including plastics, into the
marine ecosystems. Nearly 40% of cities larger than 500,000 are located in
coastal areas. According to a recent study by the World Resources
Institute, 51% of the world's coastal ecosystems, representing nearly three
fourths of marine protected areas within 100 kilometers of continents or
major islands, are at significant risk of degradation from these sources of
Congested urban areas are often hotbeds for communicable diseases, including
measles, which kills thousands in urban environments. Moreover, at least
220 million urban residents lack access to clean drinking water. According
to the World Health Organisation, unsafe drinking water is the cause 90% of
all disease, including diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid and cholera, in
Finally, more than one billion city dwellers are homeless, a figure that is
expected to rise to at least 2 billion by 2025. Many of the homeless are
evicted from squatter settlements to make way for commercial developments,
public works and luxury housing. This callous response to the plight of the
urban homeless is a major cause of unrest and violence in many of world's
In June, representatives from more than 130 nations will convene the Second
United Nations Conference on Human Settlements ("Habitat II") in Istanbul,
Turkey to confront the imposing problems faced by the world's cities.
However, as one commentator recently lamented, there is a very real prospect
that the conference will amount to little more than "a wasteful excuse for
adopting yet another windy declaration."
The failure of past international initiatives in this context does not give
one cause to be sanguine. At the first UN Conference on Human Settlements
in 1976, the governments in attendance adopted a Declaration of Principles,
and 64 specific recommendations for improving urban environments. However,
their subsequent failure to commit substantive resources to implement these
proposals has resulted in further degradation of urban environments over the
past two decades. In 1992, the delegates to the Earth Summit adopted a set
of guidelines as part of its "Agenda 21" blueprint to help make human
settlements more sustainable and to reduce their environmental impact. Yet,
again, there has been very little follow-up on the part of state actors.
What can be done to make Habitat II more than a chimera?
Some of the most dramatic success stories in the world's cities in recent
years have been accomplished by organised groups of citizens with very
little help from government entities. For example, in Orangi, Karachi,
Pakistan's largest slum, residents organised themselves in groups of 20-40
families to install sewage disposal systems and to establish simple health
care and family planning programs. As a consequence, infant mortality has
plummeted by more than 400% in the past nine years. In Curitiba, a
Brazilian city of 2.3 million, joint initiatives by citizen groups and the
local government agencies has resulted in a program that recycles 70% of the
city's waste and a public transportation system that burns 30% less
petroleum per capita than in other Brazilian cities. Finally, in Bombay,
India, residents designed community toilet blocks that are cleaner and more
functional than those maintained by their local government.
The organisers of the Habitat II conference have recognised the importance
of drawing upon the expertise of local stakeholders by including
representatives of the private sectors in the deliberative process. It can
only be hoped that these kinds of initiatives will be encouraged by
governments in the conference's aftermath. However, substantially increased
expenditures by the public sector for mass transportation, water and
sanitation systems and housing are also a critical component of any
meaningful effort to improve the plight of the world's urban residents.
Unfortunately, in an era of declining overseas development aid and severely
constrained budgets in developing nations, it is unlikely that funding for
such initiatives will be forthcoming. As a consequence, more aggressive
regulatory efforts, such as tougher pollution standards and efforts to
discourage the use of automobiles may become even more critical.
Additionally, governments and the private sector must focus on providing
more opportunities in rural areas as a means to stem the mass exodus to
cities. Finally, efforts to dramatically reduce population growth rates, at
the very heart of so many of the world's woes, must be pursued with
As Professor Klaus Topfer, the German Minister of Urban Development recently
concluded: "the quality of life for generations to come - and the chance to
solve conflict within nations and between them will depend on whether
governments find ways of coping with accelerating urban growth." Habitat II
may prove to be the world's last great hope to meet this challenge.
William C. Burns
Director, GreenLife Society - North American Chapter (formerly the Pacific
Center For International Studies)
29 E. Wilson St., , Suite 202
Madison, WI 53703 USA
Phone: (608) 250-2621
Fax: (608) 250-2622
Union of Concerned Scientists, Sound Science Initiative
The EarthAction Network
The Galapagos Coalition
Reseau International d'ONG sur la Desertification (RIOD)
Accredited NGO Observer, International Whaling Commission
European Social Science Fisheries Network
"The great use of life is to spend it for something
that will outlast it."
-- William James