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Signs of change

Today, towns and cities are home to half of humanity, and by 2030 it’s expected that three quarters of the world’s population will be urban, with the biggest cities found in the developing world.1 There are now over 400 cities in excess of a million inhabitants, with China accounting for 200 of these, and an increasing number of mega-cities (in excess of 10 million) such as Tokyo, Mexico City, Shanghai and New York. According to the Asia Times, Asia alone will have at least 10 hypercities (in excess of 20 million) by 2025.2 In Africa, too, cities are on the rise: Lagos, Nigeria, is expected to grow to 25 million residents by 2015.

The World Urban Forum, an initiative of the United Nations' Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT), is held every two years, and invites governments, local authorities, non-governmental organizations and other experts on urban issues to discuss the challenges of urbanization. The Forum was most recently held in Vancouver in 2006. According to Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, “…understanding the complex social, cultural and economic dynamics of cities and urbanisation is more important than ever before as we strive to attain internationally agreed development goals”.3 And, in response to questions raised in a BBC interview in June 2006, she commented, “cities need to create conditions to respond to growing infrastructure, housing and transport demands. We cannot prevent cities from growing [but] what we need to do is to invest in infrastructure necessary to accommodate growing urban populations. The problem is not too many people in a city; the challenge is to ensure that cities are livable for all inhabitants…History has shown that urban development is closely linked to the industrialisation of agriculture which tends to push people off the land. People then move to cities because they think they will be better off but the reality in many cities is that they end up in slums looking for work…Cities and towns need to be integrated into their environment; they need to reduce their ecological footprint and ensure that their demand on the surrounding environment is sustainable. As part of this process, the greening of urban areas is critical not only in order to provide recreational facilities but also to help minimise the heat and pollutants emitted by cities”.4

Herbert Girardet, an expert in urban sustainability, has suggested that currently cities are not centres of civilisation, but that the salient factors which define modern cities are mobilisation of people and goods, and demand for energy. Many urban activities depend, directly or indirectly, on fossil fuels, bringing pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. Today, urban centres take up only 2% of the world’s land surface, yet use over 75% of the world’s resources. Girardet poses some crucial questions: How can city people improve their understanding of the impacts of their lifestyles? Can large modern cities adopt more local, more frugal, more self-regulating production and disposal systems? How can the growth of cities be kept under control? He notes that eco-friendly urban development could well become the greatest challenge of the twenty-first century, not only for human self-interest, but also to create a sustainable relationship between cities and the biosphere. That cannot be done without changing the value systems underpinning our cities. In the end, it is only a profound change of attitudes, a spiritual and ethical change, that can assure that cities become truly sustainable.5

There is, therefore a need for cities to change, and one example is the Mega-Cities Project, a network of participating cities working together to promote new cooperative methods of solving urban problems. Their vision is “to transform cities towards increasing social justice, ecological regeneration, political participation and economic vitality respecting the unique history and culture of each one and celebrating the vitality of diversity.” The Mega-Cities Project has “identified and documented dozens of innovations in each city; brokered the transfer of 40 workable solutions across national, regional, and neighborhood boundaries; developed a grassroots leadership strategy; designed a travel/study semester for undergraduates; initiated an Annual Global Leaders Survey; and produced many case studies, articles, books and videos.”6

Agenda 21, one of the outcomes of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, is a comprehensive blueprint for action on sustainable development to be taken globally, nationally and locally, and was strongly reaffirmed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002. An example of the kind of thinking flowing from Agenda 21 is the initiative unveiled by New York City Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, on Earth Day 2007, which calls for a more energy-efficient city, including rebuilding the city’s water mains, supporting mass transit, limiting vehicle congestion [although recently a planned charging scheme did not get approval in the New York State Assembly] and creating more energy-efficient buildings. According to UN Director of Sustainable Development, JoAnne DiSano, the issues that New York City are addressing are the key issues that all countries and communities must address. She further noted that the fact that more cities from around the world are adopting sustainable development policies is particularly encouraging.7 London has already introduced a fee for some motorists entering parts of Central London with the aim of discouraging the use of private cars, reducing congestion, and providing investment in public transport. The charge, which is currently £8, has caused controversy, and while it is reported to have reduced traffic levels, it has also said to have had adverse effects on business activity. There are other smaller congestion schemes around the world: for example, in Bergen, Norway (introduced in 1986), Stockholm, Rome, and Singapore. A major investment in public transport is planned for London with Crossrail, a rail project planned to go under central London from East to West.

On a smaller scale than the mega-city, Curitiba, in Brazil, with its metropolitan area totaling 3.5 million, was described at the Habitat II summit in Istanbul in 1996 as “the most innovative city in the world”. The transport system includes lanes on major streets dedicated to a rapid transit bus system – the long buses are split into three sections, and stopping at specially designed enclosed tubes with disabled access. There is only one fare irrespective of distance traveled. This system has persuaded the city’s drivers to use their cars much less, and has improved travel for all. Two thirds of garbage in Curitiba is recycled, one of the highest rates of any city in the world; and while in the city’s poor areas there is no rubbish collection, people can bring their trash bags to neighbourhood centres and exchange them for bus tickets or for eggs, milk, oranges and potatoes, all bought from outlying farms.

Cities and their peoples can energise nations, and we must hope that they can meet the urban challenges of the 21st century – housing, transport, education, employment, waste, community integration and the threats posed by terrorism. Another example of cooperation in meeting these challenges is the City Mayors project, an international network of professionals working together to promote strong cities and good local government. An example of the pioneering impact that cities can wield is in the U.S.A. where, independently of the federal government, more than 150 cities have signed up to the Kyoto Protocol.8 City Mayors also run an internet-based World Mayor project intended to raise the profile of mayors worldwide by honouring those who serve and make significant contributions to cities. John So, Mayor of Melbourne was the winner of the 2006 award.

1. Information from UN-HABITAT website: www.unhabitat.org

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Megacity

3. UN-HABITAT – State of the World’s Cities 2006/7

4. BBCNews – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/talking_point/5097684.stm

5. Cities and the Culture of Sustainability by Herbert Girardet,http://solarcity.org/city_sustainability.htm

6. www.megacitiesproject.org

7. www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=22315&Cr=environment&Cr1=

8. www.citymayors.com/development/cities_future.html