United Nations Under-Secretary General
and Executive Director, UNEP
As we gradually become accustomed to the fact that we are
adding about a quarter of a million people to our population every day, we
have yet to comprehend fully the fact that the world's cities are growing
by 1 million people each week.
The majority of this growth has occurred in cities in the developing
countries, where there are 213 cities of more than a million people and
some 20 at the 10 million mark.
The proliferation of unplanned urban settlements fuels not only a crushing
cycle of poverty and disease but also crippling social problems, such as
drug abuse and crime. And, as urban settlements continue to deteriorate,
the debate on how to aid them grows increasingly divisive.
Programmes aimed at economic and environmental development have so far
been fragmented and ineffective, usually taking the form of subsidies or
expensive efforts to stimulate economic activity in tangential fields such
as housing and real estate. Lacking an overall strategy, such programmes
have treated the city as isolated from the surrounding environment and
subject to its own unique laws.
The blanket of smog that hangs over cities such as Rio, Mexico City,
Delhi, Beijing and tens of thousands of smaller cities is indicative of
more critical problems that these countries face - of vulnerability to
environmental sanitation problems, and to both natural and man-made
Cities are encroaching upon fragile ecosystems. Nearly 40 per cent of
cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants are located on the coast.
Especially dangerous is the public health hazard of contaminated water
supplies or other sources of pathogen transmission resulting from
inadequately treated sewage. Transportation demand and vehicle ownership
are concentrated in urban areas and energy use for transportation is
rising faster than any other sector.
The time has now come to recognize that revitalizing our cities will
require a radically different approach. While social programmes should
continue to play a critical role in meeting human needs and improving
education, they must support - and not undermine - a strategy that is
economically and environmentally sustainable.
If cities are to continue to be the engines for economic growth, as they
have been throughout human history, their future development has to be
based on considerations that are environmentally sustainable.
Seen in this light, the forthcoming United Nations Conference on Human
Settlements (HABITAT II) has the potential to identify the connections
among the political, economic, environmental and social factors intrinsic
to the equitable and sustainable development of human settlements. The
Conference will address the three critical issues of water supply and
sanitation, solid waste management and air pollution, areas which largely
define the sustainability of urban development.
Clearly, successful efforts will require significant changes in
contemporary urban practices and strategies. An integrated approach to the
provision of environmentally sound infrastructure in human settlements, in
particular for the urban and rural poor, is an investment in sustainable
development that can improve the quality of life, increase productivity,
improve health and reduce the burden of investments in health care and
Beyond the immediate priorities for improving the urban environment lies
the need to strengthen local governments, to implement new approaches to
alleviating poverty and supporting communities and to develop more
environmentally friendly cities. Virtually all the policies needed to
improve the urban environment require more effective governance.
The Sustainable Cities Programme, a joint endeavour of UNEP and the United
Nations Centre for Human Settlements, introduces just such an approach.
Now in the sixth year of its operation, this Programme has developed a
responsive and flexible system of Urban Environmental Planning and
Management on a resolutely bottom-up framework, aimed at engaging local
authorities with residents and local organizations in the design and
provision of services to the community while protecting local, regional
and global ecosystems. HABITAT II will bring together all the partners in
this Programme in a global sharing of experience, technical expertise,
tools development and networking.
As I see it, the increasing pace of global integration will determine
whether in the future the lines that separate a city, a country, a region
and a continent will get progressively blurred or not. One thing is clear:
the fate of cities will determine more and more not only the fate of
nations but also of our planet. We can afford to ignore the issue of the
sustainable management of our cities only at our own peril.