Cities: our common future
explains how urban conditions will shape humanity's
future and suggests practical ways of making cities sustainable
The Earth Summit in Rio recognized very clearly how
crucial the issues of urban development are for global sustainable
development. Agenda 21 highlights human settlements, especially cities and
agglomerations, as priority areas for global, national and local action.
In fact, many of the chapters of this global action programme deal with
urban issues in implicit or explicit ways.
The issue is not just urban planning or the spatial design of our cities.
It is just as much urban life-styles, production and consumption patterns,
mobility and transportation systems. The internal needs of urban
development - for more space, more mobility, more materials and natural
resources - are no longer the only yard-stick by which to measure urban
progress. Urban development needs to take full account of the impacts on
the ecosystems - and these impacts go far beyond the local level.
The issue is also the fight against unhealthy living conditions and urban
poverty. It is nothing less than providing the basic life support for
increasing numbers of urban dwellers who know that the city is their
The cities are our common future. The main question is how we organize
agglomerations, how we govern cities to keep them as livable places. The
second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (HABITAT II)
provides the opportunity for the adoption of an action programme on the
highest possible political level. The opportunity must be taken to
translate the goal of 'sustainable settlements development' into political
action. This is not an easy task. We have yet to translate the
cross-cutting human settlements challenges into a convincing agenda.
The challenges are indeed both urgent and impressive. Urban growth of
large cities, metropolises and even 'megacities' will continue. At the
turn of the century, half of the world's population will live in cities.
In the year 2025, the Earth is expected to be home to almost 100
megacities with a population of more than 5 million. Eighty of these
agglomerations will be located in what we call today the developing
Big cities often witness excessive and wasteful consumption of water,
energy and other resources. With a lack of appropriate infrastructure and
technology, these cities suffer from wide-spread pollution of air and
water, even contamination of soil and food. Health conditions in
developing country cities are often far below decent standards. Even in
prosperous countries, many health disorders are related to specific
influences from an urban environment.
The Social Summit in Copenhagen once again highlighted the importance of
social issues for sustainable development. In many cities of the world,
the absence of well-coordinated urban and regional planning contributes to
economic and social deprivation, loss of community, social segregation and
other negative urban trends, which in turn contribute to social diseases
like crime, alcohol abuse and drug problems as well as to psychological
For progress towards sustainable cities, three areas of action are of
- First, we need a modern infrastructure for environmental and
health protection. Drinking water supply, wastewater treatment, waste
disposal and remediation technologies are essential for adequate urban
living conditions. Millions of people in developing countries do not even
have access to the most basic life-support systems.
- Secondly, urban production and consumption patterns, often linked
with highly mobile and energy-intensive urban life-styles, need to be
adjusted to the needs of resource protection. It is obvious that we cannot
count on modern technology alone if we want to solve these problems. More
attention has to be paid to strategies for product recycling and the
product responsibility of manufacturers. Changes in behaviour patterns
related to mobility, energy use and leisure activities need to be
- Thirdly, the internal structure of the cities, and in particular
of the large agglomerations, needs to be examined. When growing cities
lack a focus on existing or new centres, when they 'dissolve' into the
countryside, creating vast suburbs where people have to use a car when
they want to buy bread, the result will be a very unsustainable physical
structure. Much of the energy consumption in transportation is the result
of the settlement structure and of ill-advised planning policies. In the
search for a sustainable land use pattern, we come to rediscover the
wisdom of traditional urban design which has contributed so much to urban
vitality and the community spirit. At the same time, a concentration of
settlements around well-equipped centres can help preserve the open space
which is necessary for an environmentally sound and healthy region. In
looking for what makes urban neighbourhoods vital, attractive and socially
stable, a healthy mix of urban functions is seen to be a key element.
The future of humanity will be shaped largely by urban conditions. The
quality of life for generations to come - and the chance to solve conflict
within nations and between them - will depend on whether or not
governments find ways of coping with accelerating urban growth, and
whether or not local authorities succeed in combating pollution, limiting
automobile traffic, and securing basic health and social needs.
The city as such cannot be blamed for the conditions which we find wanting
and often appalling. There will be no road back to a preindustrial world,
where the majority lived in the countryside in harmony with nature. We
have to take urban growth as a chance for sustainable development. Urban
settlements hold a promise for sustainable human development and for the
protection of the world's natural resources through their ability to
support large numbers of people in a limited space and with a high degree
of technical and economic efficiency. We have yet to recognize fully this
tremendous potential for the 'ecological efficiency' of cities, combined
with economic and social efficiency, and we have to make use of this
potential. There is no other choice in the face of rapid population
growth, in a world in which the population grows by 280,000 people per
day. The task is to organize large urban areas in such a way that allows
for efficient provision and management of housing, job opportunities,
commerce and trade, mobility and leisure.
The industrialized countries have to recognize that their urban
life-styles, their patterns of production and consumption are an important
part of the global environmental problem. It is one of the important
messages of Rio and its follow-up that the industrialized countries, even
though their health standards are generally better, are in no way the
environmental models of the world. They are, however, better at
externalizing negative environmental effects to other regions, to the
atmosphere, to the oceans.
The industrialized countries are in a position to provide the blueprints,
the know-how and the technology for managing large conurbations in ways
which provide minimal standards of health, safety and basic services.
Industrialized countries cannot claim possession of higher wisdom in urban
planning. Learning for sustainable urban development is not a one-way
street. Many traditional local practices have proved their superiority
over imported expertise. And yet, the institutional and technological
capacities of industrialized countries can be an important boost to the
struggling urban authorities in developing countries.
It would be a great symbol of global urban solidarity if more and more
cities from industrialized countries were to form partnerships with cities
from developing countries, or countries in transition, for the transfer of
know-how and technology and for the exchange of experience. The vision of
'sustainable cities' is gaining more and more ground with local government
institutions, with planners and architects, contractors and engineers and,
most importantly, with the citizens who, in their daily lives, will make
the adjustments required for a sustainable life-style. We need the power
of this vision, the imagination and the talent of all these people.
While emphasizing the need for local action, local decision-making power
and accountability, we must clarify the translocal and transnational
relevance of urban development issues. It is necessary to link the various
bodies and agencies which carry out important work for global sustainable
development in a constructive partnership with common goals.
This decade offers an unprecedented 'window of opportunity' for starting
worldwide a new approach to urban development. The Earth Summit in 1992
has brought a remarkable consensus for the need for sustainable
development. HABITAT II will offer the opportunity to create a new global
partnership for sustainable cities. And in 1997 the nations will gather
again for the special United Nations General Assembly which will be
convened to assess the progress which has been made since Rio.
Let us join together to use these opportunities to bring the vision of
sustainable cities closer to reality. Let us convince leaders on local,
national and international levels that it is our common future which is at
stake. Let us convince our fellow citizens, our neighbours and our
teachers, that the goal of sustainable cities needs fresh approaches in
individual behaviour and in production, consumption and mobility patterns.
'Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development.
They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with
nature.' This opening paragraph from the Rio declaration expresses very
well the broad and 'people-centred' approach to sustainable urban
Professor Dr. Klaus Toepfer is the Minister for Regional Planning,
Building and Urban Development in Germany.