Human Settlements Editorial



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 disasters.

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 poverty alleviation.

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.

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