Albion Monitor /News

Future of Cities Looks Bleak

by Wil Burns

Urban populations growing at a staggering rate of 170,000 each day

(AR) MADISON, Wis. -- Representatives from more than 130 nations convened at the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements ("Habitat II") in Istanbul, Turkey to confront the imposing problems faced by the world's cities. Foremost at the conference were concerns about population; 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.

Some 33 "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. Sixteen of the mega-cities will be located in the developing world, with 90 percent of overall urban growth occurring in developing nations.

City air and water pollution threatens surrounding ecosystems

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, sulfur 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 percent above guideline levels. A recent study concluded that air pollution in Chinese cities has increased the death rate from cancer by 6.2 percent and lung cancer by a staggering 18.5 percent since 1988.

Worldwide, the World Health Organization 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, 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 releasing of litter, including plastics, into marine ecosystems. Nearly 40 percent of cities larger than 500,000 are located in coastal areas.

According to a recent study by the World Resources Institute, 51 percent 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 Organization, unsafe drinking water is the cause of 90 percent 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.

Few results from earlier conferences

Habitat II supposedly confronted these problems, but one commentator recently lamented that there is a very real prospect that the conference will result in 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.

Some of the most dramatic success stories in the world's cities in recent years have been accomplished by organized groups of citizens with little or no assistance from government entities. For example, in Orangi, Karachi, Pakistan's largest slum, residents organized 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 percent 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 percent of the city's waste and a public transportation system that burns 30 percent 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 organizers of the Habitat II conference have recognized 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 vigor.

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.

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Albion Monitor June 30, 1996 (

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