New hope for sustainable cities

June 18, 1996|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- The brute facts of soaring population in the burgeoning metropolises of Africa, Asia and Latin America permeated every session of Habitat II, the U.N.-sponsored ''City Summit'' just concluded here.

While 40 to 50 percent of the world's population already lives in urban slums, people of the developing world still pour into the cities in hope of some chance for a better life. By 2015, only one of the globe's 10 largest cities -- Tokyo, with 28.7 million people -- will be in the developed world. The others are projected to be Bombay, India (27.4 million), Lagos, Nigeria (24.4), Shanghai, China (23.4), Jakarta, Indonesia (21.2), Sao Paulo, Brazil (20.8), Karachi, Pakistan (20.6), Beijing, China (19.4), Dhaka, Bangladesh (19) and Mexico City (18.8).

Consider Istanbul. It would have been hard to find a more appropriate spot for a global conference on cities than this fabled trading city on the Bosporus, rich in both Muslim and Christian history, where Asia and Europe meet.

From 600,000 souls in 1923, Istanbul has exploded to about 10 million today and could be headed for 20 million in the next two decades. Hundreds of thousands live in Istanbul's shantytowns. The city suffers immense education, health and transport problems.

Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto caught some of the world's urban dilemma when she spoke here of ''overpacked cities that seethe with dirt, slums, pollution, noise, high divorce rates, drugs, violence, and criminal activity even in youngsters.''

Yet paradoxically, the Istanbul conference was also a celebration of the world's cities.

In 1976, at the first U.N. conference on human settlements held in Vancouver, only diplomats and official delegations were on hand, and the only talk was of what central governments could do for cities. In Istanbul, by contrast, thousands of nondiplomats came from all continents. There were mayors and other local officials, members of national and local legislatures, business, foundation, banking and youth-group leaders.

The Istanbul meeting constituted what is surely the most significant world conference on cities ever held, not just for its scale, but because most participants share a belief -- the grim statistics notwithstanding -- that a sustainable global future may still be within mankind's reach.

Neighborhood approach

The most favored answers lay in more attention to sanitation and public health in neighborhoods, to women's rights and child welfare, and to an expanded definition for housing -- not only as shelter but as a workplace for poor people taking in work or founding their own small enterprises.

''A rebirth of community'' and belief in people's inherent skills ''is occurring globally,'' said British urban observer David Satherwaite: ''If you support individuals developing their own neighborhoods, you will get better cities. Add water, sanitation, drainage and health care, schools and day centers, and you've immensely reduced the problems named at this conference.''

Neither municipal or national authorities should be relieved of their responsibility for support, said Mr. Satherwaite, adding: ''But essentially, the process is from the bottom up, rather than trying to impose order from the top down.''

In Vancouver, the focus had been on coaxing or forcing people to stay on the land. In Istanbul, cities' strengths were underscored.

From electricity to water to sewer to heating to garbage collection, as Janice Perlman, founder of the U.S.-based Megacities organization, noted, costs are much lower per person in cities than in rural areas. When people come to cities, their economic opportunities expand, health care improves, and they have fewer children. Now, she said, world cities should focus on ''circular'' ecosystems in cities, so that all waste is reused.

''Istanbul,'' said Wally N'Dow, secretary general of the conference, ''announces the good news that we don't always have to curse the darkness, the social catastrophes in cities, that there's hope for a sustainable global society.''

Whistling in the dark? Maybe not -- with a worldwide network of newly connected people focused on the same objectives.

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

Pub Date: 6/18/96

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