"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 Chapter

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 pollution.

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 developing countries,

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 largest cities.

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 redoubled vigour.

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
WWW site: http://nceet.snre.umich.edu/greenlife/index.html

GLSNA Affiliations:

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


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