The city century

Anna Tibaijuka outlines the worldwide possibilities for sustainable development in cities

At night, from outer space, the lights from cities, towns and villages illuminate a world wide web of human hopes and aspirations. However, with more than 3 billion people now living in urban areas and with more than 160,000 people being added to the urban population each day, each dot of light is a daily reminder that the battle for the environmental future of the planet will be won or lost in cities and towns. It is therefore fitting that, this year, World Environment Day should fall on the eve of Istanbul+5, the special session of the General Assembly for the review and appraisal of the Habitat Agenda to be held in New York, 6-8 June 2001.

Sustainable settlement
In June 1996, at Habitat II – the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements – 171 governments met in Istanbul to commit themselves to improving the living environment in the world’s settlements. By adopting the Habitat Agenda at this meeting, Member States of the United Nations and the international community endorsed the twin principles of adequate shelter for all and sustainable human settlements development. On 6 June 2001, these same governments will be invited by the United Nations General Assembly to present their achievements and to review progress on the commitments they made at Habitat II. Istanbul+5 will also lead to the formulation and prioritization of future actions and initiatives.

If ever there was a need to prioritize the problems of urbanization, it is now. Worldwide there are more than 326 cities with populations of 1 million plus. The ecological footprint of these grows exponentially and many human settlements now find themselves in competition for scarce resources. At the same time, urban areas are the main source of environmental pollution. In an age when climate change is one of the major threats confronting the planet, research shows that cities have become islands of heat.

But urban agglomerations are not just part of the problem; they are also an essential part of the solution. Human settlements offer economies of scale and possibilities for technological innovation and conservation. Well managed neighbourhoods are the key to a sustainable future. Global environmental problems can and must be tackled at the local level. This is why the successful implementation of the Habitat Agenda is so critical to the environmental future of the planet.

Good governance
The underlying message of this negotiated document is that sustainable urban development depends largely on good governance and an enabling policy environment. More than anything else, the Istanbul Conference endorsed the important role played by local authorities, the private sector, non-governmental organizations and other civil society organizations in improving the condition of human settlements. As the custodian of the Habitat Agenda, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements has been working with these partners to find innovative ways of resolving the problems in human settlements.

One of Habitat’s most important partners is UNEP. Together UNEP and Habitat have established projects that illustrate how the urban environment can be changed for the better. Their Sustainable Cities Programme is supporting the development of ‘environmental profiles’ in various cities. Another joint programme, Managing Water for African Cities, has set up demonstration projects in seven of the continent’s cities on managing the growing urban water crisis. A third, the Urban Environment Forum links cities and their partners in international support programmes through a global network. This is a partnership of which both agencies can be proud.

Reversing trends
In an era of globalization, the possibilities for partnership are endless. Yet the reports prepared for Istanbul+5 indicate that globalization has had a detrimental effect on the poor in slums and squatter settlements. It can only be hoped that the commitments made at the special session in New York in June and at Rio+10 in South Africa next year will help alleviate the suffering of the poor and improve their living environments. At the dawn of the city century, the world wide web of possibilities must lead to an improvement in the state of the environment and in the state of our human settlements

Anna Tibaijuka is Executive Director, United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat).

PHOTOGRAPH: Stephen Ferry/UNEP/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Driving change | Clearing the bottlenecks | Commuting sustainably (Singapore) | Transported to the future (Curitiba, Brazil) | Bucking the trend (Freiburg, Germany) | Message from the UN Secretary-General | Message from Cuba | Message from Turin | Competition | Breaking free | Calling for change | Reaching the unreached | Greening the screen | Taking the lead | Wanted: more good reporters | On the dot | The city century

Complementary issue:
Human settlements 1996