Klaus Toepfer
United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UNEP

In the East Africa city of Dar es Salaam an innovative transport project promises to cut congestion, reduce air pollution and reclaim the streets for pedestrians, cyclists and the public. The Dar es Salaam Bus Rapid Transit system, or DART, is a partnership between the City Council and a wide variety of companies and organizations, including UNEP, with funding from the Global Environment Facility.

The blueprint for the scheme – which will combine modern, multi-door buses and fast boarding for passengers with novel ticketing systems, priority bus lanes and car restrictions – is Bogotá. In the 1990s the Colombian city was unloved by its citizens. As an article in this World Environment Day edition of Our Planet outlines, the car was king and the streets and public places were choking in traffic noise and fumes.

Civic pride
But Bogotá is now reclaiming its sense of community and civic pride, largely thanks to its rapid transit system and other measures like restricting car use, planting trees, establishing or redeveloping some 1,000 parks, and encouraging more human-friendly modes of transport. It now boasts Latin America’s biggest network of bicycle ways, some 300 km of them, and the world’s longest pedestrians-only street, 17 km long.

I believe it is vital to flag up these kinds of success stories. They underline the importance of partnerships and are proof that even seemingly monumental problems of urban squalor, decline, and pollution can be overturned by communities and city leaders with vision, creativity and enthusiasm.

Half the world now lives in cities and two thirds of its population are set to be urban dwellers by 2030. We tend to focus on the huge problems of coping with the accompanying global explosion of unplanned, informal, settlements. Slums and sewers – rather than soaring spires and tantalizing social and professional possibilities – are all too often our sole preoccupation.

Of course we must tackle the misery, unhealthy living conditions and sub-standard services which blight too many city dwellers in both developing and developed countries.

But urbanization, on its own, is far from being a bad thing. From fine buildings and leafy boulevards to city parks and centres for the performing arts, cities can inspire and invigorate, and be sources of wonder, excitement and contemplation. They are also the engines of commerce and trade, and seats of government and power . It was in San Francisco – this year’s host for World Environment Day – that the Charter of the United Nations was signed 60 years ago.

Social hierarchies
Cities are also melting pots of cultures, where social hierarchies are blurred, social mobility is always possible, and diversity can thrive and be cherished. They are catalysts for new ideas and political movements. Most of the world’s great universities, libraries, theatres, art galleries, concert halls, teaching hospitals and research institutes are in urban settings.

Sadly, however, through incompe-tence, poor governance or a lack of resources, too many cities are badly run and administered. In many developing countries, the sheer rate of urbaniza

Ecological footprint
Cities use enormous amounts of natural resources, while their wastes – from sewage to the gases that cause global warming – impact vast areas; by some calculations London, which physically occupies 170,000 hectares, has an ecological footprint of 21 million hectares – or 125 times its size. But cities also could help deliver a more environmentally stable and resource efficient world.

As UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook 3 puts it: “The relatively dis-proportionate urban environmental footprint is acceptable to a certain extent because, for some issues, the per capita environmental impact of cities is smaller than would be made by a similar number of people in a rural setting. Cities concentrate people in a way that reduces land pressure and provides economies of scale and proximity of infrastructure and services.”

Clearly, the battles to eradicate poverty and deliver the Millennium Development Goals will be won or lost by whether we can manage the urban environment effectively and creatively. If we can – as the examples of Dar es Salaam and Bogotá suggest – we will be a long way down the road to truly sustainable development


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This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Challenges and Opportunity | Bridging the Water Gap | Golden Gateway to Green Cities | The Spirit of “Mottai Nai” | Cities without Slums | People | Rapid Progress | At a glance: Greening Cities | Charging into the Future | Star profile: Tokiko Kato | The Female Factor | Unlocking People Energy | Think Local | High Achievements | Life at the Top | Books and products | Focus On Your World | Black Sea, Green City?

Complementary issues:
Cassio Taniguchi: Transported to the future (Transport) 2001
Rolf Böhme: Bucking the trend (Transport) 2001