Cities: our common future

Cities: our common future

KLAUS Toepfer

explains how urban conditions will shape humanity's future and suggests practical ways of making cities sustainable

overcrowded bus

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 future.

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 countries.

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 disorders.

For progress towards sustainable cities, three areas of action are of prime importance:

- 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 encouraged.

- 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.

men working 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.

Rio follow-up

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.

woman with baby

Common goals

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 development.

Professor Dr. Klaus Toepfer is the Minister for Regional Planning, Building and Urban Development in Germany.

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