Sharing solutions for urban ills Costly problems: Massive urbanization takes a toll in health and productivity.

January 02, 1996

CITIES LIKE BALTIMORE are not alone in their problems. Cities everywhere are struggling with many of the same conditions. Housing shortages produce homelessness, yet in many cities the poor quality of much of the existing housing stock and infrastructure creates other dangers.

A dramatic example: The 1994 outbreak of plague in Surat, India, was attributed largely to unsanitary living conditions. The outbreak afflicted some 5,000 people. Meanwhile, half a million people fled the city, and the plague was blamed for some $1.5 billion in economic losses. By Indian standards, Surat is a relatively prosperous city; addressing the conditions that allowed the plague to develop would have cost far less than the damages it caused. Similar stories could be told elsewhere, as people crowd into cities unprepared to support them.

But as cities face growing problems with a shortage of resources, many of them are coming up with imaginative solutions. The United Nations Center for Human Settlements, also known as Habitat, is diligently collecting information about worthwhile approaches so that other cities can try them. Next June, in the last of the United Nations' mega-conferences for this century, Habitat will convene a gathering in Istanbul devoted to creating the will and the means to improve housing conditions, ++ and thus health and productivity, around the globe.

There are plenty of ways cities can learn from what Habitat calls "best practices" in addressing urban ills. For instance: cities are more successful when they forge long-term partnerships with their national governments, as well as with community organizations and the private sector. Moreover, projects designed to sustain themselves are generally more effective than those stemming fro one-shot external funding (Baltimore, take note).

By publicizing approaches that work, by encouraging cities to take a long-term view, by stressing partnerships that depend on citizens and not just bureaucrats, Habitat can contribute measurably to urban environments -- the places that house the majority of the Earth's people.

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