Crippled Cities Mean a Crippled World

NEAL R. PEIRCE

November 18, 1991|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Cities of the world are telegraphing a strong message to organizers of ''Earth Summit,'' the United Nations' big Conference on the Environment and Development to be held next June in Rio de Janeiro.

Cities want the 166 national delegations to Rio, many led by presidents and prime ministers, to recognize that without healthy cities, the entire globe may get very sick. They want cities high on the conference agenda, up there with global warming, deforestation, desertification, the loss of animal and plant species.

It's not just that so many metropolises are plagued by a deteriorating environment, faulty infrastructure, urban sprawl and tragic housing. It's that the world's population, in search of economic opportunity, is choosing cities to live in. By 2000, 25 cities (mostly in South America and Asia) will have mega-populations of 10 million or more. For the first time in the history of mankind, urban areas will have the majority of the world's population.

''If you think humanity is overwhelming the world, cities are where it's happening the fastest,'' says Montreal's Mayor Jean Dore. Less than 60 percent of the world's urban population has access to adequate sanitation. Cascading traffic flows make cities a prime generator of the carbon-monoxide emissions that may trigger the ''greenhouse effect.''

The message that Earth Summit needs to get serious about cities came out of the meeting of 22 mayors of major world cities in Montreal last month. A new International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, with headquarters in Toronto, is now working on an agenda to be put to the Rio conference.

The World Bank, with a new emphasis on urban infrastructure, transportation, water-supply and solid-waste management, is joining several U.N. agencies in applying pressure to ensure that the Earth Summit has an urban spin. Maurice Strong, the Canadian businessman-environmentalist who is secretary general of the Rio conference, has taken up the call: ''The battle for survival of the planet will be won or lost in the cities. . . . Those who lead the great cities of the world are really the pathfinders of change on our planet.''

The conference ought to spotlight, says Montreal's Mayor Dore, the intimate interdependence of the world's cities. Cities typically drive national economies. But crippled cities mean crippled world economics. New Delhi is responsible for 32 percent of India's gross national product. If its basic systems -- transit, roads, sanitation -- aren't up to the mark, India's entire economic future is imperiled.

What kind of markets will North America find for its products in the next century if the burgeoning cities of Africa and South America are so convulsed by environmental problems and urban poverty that they have no money to pay for North American exports?

How can the greenhouse effect be combatted unless cities embrace mass transit and cut back on the mass use of automobiles?

Infrastructure investment in American cities has declined precipitously in the last several decades -- and total U.S. productivity gains have plummeted in lockstep with the lack of public investment, says the World Bank.

During the Montreal conference, New York's Mayor David Dinkins had to rush home to deal with the rupture of an 87-year-old water main that ruined a refurbished subway station near Grand Central Terminal. New York's massive deferred maintenance symbolizes the time bomb of urban disinvestment.

Founder-director Janice Perlman of the New York-based ''Megacities'' project, says that increasingly it is impossible to separate ''first-'' and ''third-world'' cities:

''In every 'first-world' city, there is a 'third-world' city of malnutrition, infant mortality, unemployment, homelessness. And in every 'third-world' city, there is a 'first-world' city of high-tech, high-finance and high-fashion.''

It would be refreshing, she suggests, if the heads of state meeting in Rio de Janeiro ''began to consider poor urban children as much an endangered species as the whooping crane or the giant panda.''

Whether the national leaders gathering for the Earth Summit will want to spend time on such unglamorous challenges as urban infrastructure, vehicle emissions and grinding poverty, is still a big open question.

George Bush isn't alone among world leaders in his predilection for foreign policy. Few heads of state find tough local issues their cup of tea. Any notion that urban infrastructure is an important economic issue central governments need to address -- that is, spend money on -- is unlikely to be welcomed.

Still, the Rio conference, with cities and urban survivability getting the same attention as tropical rain forests and endangered species, ought to dramatize our multifaceted and deepening global interdependence.

Millions of people may listen. And that's the stuff hope can be made of.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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