A world of cities Istanbul summit: United Nations parley grapples with problems of urbanization.

June 09, 1996

ISTANBUL IS a perfect location for the second United Nations conference on human settlements. Not because of its breathtaking views or its rich history. But because this Turkish city of 10 million people keeps growing by about 400,000 each year. Istanbul, in brief, is a case study in the rapid and uncontrolled urbanization that is evidenced in many countries, particularly in the Third World.

The current tidal wave of urbanization is so huge that if U.N. estimates are correct, half the world will be living in cities by the year 2000. But wait. Those same estimates say two-thirds of the earth's population will be city dwellers by 2025. This will lead to daunting challenges.

Urban planning and infrastructure simply will not be able to keep pace with such rapid growth, even if adequate resources exist, which is a big if. Already, the United Nations says about 100 million people worldwide, mostly women and children, are homeless and up to 600 million people are poorly housed.

As more than 10,000 government officials and housing advocates continue to meet in Istanbul, the most contentious item on the agenda so far has been developing countries' demand that the U.N. declare shelter to be a basic human right. Such a declaration, which is opposed by the United States and many other industrialized countries, could then be used by developing countries to get aid for housing-related problems. "Substantial financial resources should be mobilized by the international community with the view to address the issue of human settlements in developing countries," Fernando Berrocal-Soto, Costa Rica's permanent U.N. representative, told the conference.

Bigger and bigger cities are not the answer, but will contribute to an imbalance within many countries where urban centers are overgrown and without adequate economic opportunities while the countryside is empty and not used for food production. Such a situation is an assured recipe for tensions and upheavals.

Baltimore, whose Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was among U.S. delegates to Istanbul, illustrates a different trend. The city's population peaked at nearly 1 million in the 1950s and has now declined to under 700,000. But depopulation of the city has only accelerated the urbanization of its surrounding counties, creating opportunities -- and a host of new problems.

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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