Change of habitat

Change of habitat


reports that humanity is about to become a predominantly urban species, and outlines how HABITAT II will confront the challenges of this new world

Urbanization is bringing about one of the most significant transformations of the human habitat in history.

By the year 2000, half of humanity will be living in urban areas. By 2030, urban populations will be twice the size of rural populations (see diagrams). What are the implications of this new urban world on human settlement policies?

It is clear that efforts to improve all aspects of the living environment must be focused on urban areas. That is where most of the world's population will live and work, where most economic activity will take place and where the most pollution will be generated and most natural resources consumed. The urban agenda will, therefore, be the most pressing challenge facing humanity in the 21st century.

Redefining cities

Current trends in the liberalization of both the global economy and national economies are accelerating the urbanization process. Moreover, the information age is not only changing the structures and operating styles of transnational corporations, it is also redefining the role of cities in the global village our world has become.

Exacerbating the urban crisis is a North-South divide of wealth and poverty that over the years has grown progressively wider. The second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (HABITAT II) is deeply aware of the dimensions of that threat. It knows that peace and security cannot be achieved in a world in which growing numbers face chronic and expanding impoverishment.

The evidence is compelling. Primarily due to a decaying urban environment, at least 600 million people, mostly in developing countries, live in 'health and life threatening' situations. Up to one-third or more of urban peoples, in general, dwell in sub-standard housing. At least 250 million urban residents have no easy access to safe piped water; 400 million lack sanitation.

Although there are still uncertainties on the exact year when the urban poor will outnumber the rural poor, the trend is clear. Not only are we living in an increasingly urbanized world, we are also experiencing an urbanization of poverty and, along with it, increasing feminization of poverty. Indeed, women and dependent children suffer the most and have the worst shelter, especially in urban areas.

Historically, security has always been seen in terms of protecting national boundaries and borders. All that is changing now. The end of the Cold War has brought with it a new reality that the only true and lasting security is the one that concerns itself with the welfare of people - their healthy and productive lives in an environment that encourages them to attain their full potential as human beings. HABITAT II is devoted to a major aspect of that effort and could play a key role in shaping the human security of generations to come.

Two-fold objective

The overall objective of the HABITAT II Conference is two-fold: first to increase the world's awareness of the deteriorating living environment; second to awaken the planet to the potentials of human settlements as catalysts for social progress and economic growth, which can only happen if our cities, towns and villages are healthy, safe, just and sustainable. The fundamental goal is to prepare the international community for life on an urbanized Earth.

The overwhelming speed at which the Earth is urbanizing leaves little time for institutional adaption. Central governments have increasingly recognized that they alone cannot deal with the problems brought about by rapid urbanization. Consequently, they have enlisted the support of local authorities, the private sector, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community groups.

HABITAT II will also examine the issue of civic partnerships and how they can be used both to overcome the problems and at the same time enrich urban life. This call for partnerships was reinforced at the third session of the Preparatory Committee for HABITAT II, which concluded in New York on 16 February this year. In fact, the major achievement of this PrepCom was the recognition of the importance of partnerships between national governments, local authorities, NGOs and the private sector. This, I hope, will establish a precedent for the future involvement of civil society in United Nations deliberations.

As the United Nations Secretary-General, Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali has said: 'The challenge of development has become the challenge of urban settlements.' HABITAT II is a broad-spectrum opportunity, perhaps a last chance, for an international collaborative venture to face squarely the pressing challenge that confronts humanity in the coming century.

Dr. Wally N'Dow is Secretary-General of the HABITAT II Conference.

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