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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mega-Cities in the Year 2025

Air Date: Week of

The United Nations predicts that around the world, 30 years from now 5 billion people will be living in cities. Jan Nunley speaks with Dr. Wally N'Dow of Gambia who is Secretary General of Habitat 2, a United Nations Conference about cities in the 21st Century which is being held in Istanbul, Turkey this coming June.


NUNLEY: According to the United Nations, the world's cities will be home to 5 billion people by the year 2025. That's double the number of city dwellers in 1990. Almost all of this growth, a staggering 90%, will occur in the developing world where local governments already face huge difficulties, providing the most basic of needs: clean drinking water, sewage treatment and garbage collection. The future of our cities is the focus of a UN Conference being held in June in Istanbul, Turkey, and for the next few weeks it will also be the focus of a special series on Living on Earth. The Istanbul conference is officially called the Second UN Conference on Human Settlements, or Habitat II. Informally it's just being called The City Summit. Conference Secretary General Dr. Wally N' Dow of Gambia says that cities are home to some of today's most pressing environmental problems, and that to confront them world leaders must move from a green agenda to a brown one.

N'DOW: The green agenda for excellence has meant, in the recent decade at least, our concern on the green environment: the seas, the global commons, the oceans, the atmosphere. The brown agenda is the human habitat; this is what Istanbul is about. The cities and the towns and the hamlets and the villages and the townships of our world. How are we going to make them more livable? By what concepts must we be guided in the 21st century, which will be the century of the city.

NUNLEY: Having a conference on cities implies that there is a crisis, somehow, that there is a problem, that we should be alarmed by the huge numbers of people who are cramming into urban areas. But the fact is that people living in cities really have higher life expectancy rates, do they not? Lower absolute poverty than people in rural areas, and they provide essential services more cheaply. So what are we to make of this population explosion? Is it really a crisis?

N'DOW: It is a crisis depending on the region. There are pockets of great difficulty in towns of constricted human existence. It has pockets of great sadness; there's pockets of declining expectations. Even in developed societies, there are pockets of the south, if I may use that phrase. There are conditions akin to developing country or undeveloped country environments in some of the cities of the developed world. So for those people, cities are really not the places and the habitats that they would have wished.

NUNLEY: So how does this differ from the great urban migrations of the past? Is it simply a matter of scale, or is there a qualitative difference?

N'DOW: It's both. There's really never been a golden age in times of urban strife and the struggles of the poor in the city. Just reflect a little bit on Dickensian London and you'll see what I'm saying. But today the numbers are bigger. The social catastrophes are more challenging; witness crime, drugs. Witness the violence that we live today, given the complexities in the world, the negative impacts of this migration are far more serious. Just basically for sustainable human development.

NUNLEY: And since we're all so much more interconnected, the ramifications extend to us in a way that they didn't before, perhaps.

N'DOW: Oh yes, indeed. Given global migration, given global disease, given global economies and global commerce. Problems of regions far away rise up like a tidal wave and hit us in many parts of the developed world. Witness the debate that's going on in this very country about immigration.

NUNLEY: Now we've got 27 million people who live in Tokyo. Sao Paulo, Brazil, has 16 million people and so does New York City. What do you think the limit is as to how many people a large urban area can support? Is there are carrying capacity for cities?

N'DOW: It all depends on how you measure the footprint of that city. By footprint I mean its impact on the ecology, on the food base that it needs to continue functioning. On the resources that a city like Tokyo and a city like New York needs. How do you measure how you can sustain New York? Are you measuring it only in terms of what New York needs from America, or are you measuring it in terms of what New York may need from the rest of the world? The studies that we have been engaged in are not confined to the functioning of any one given city where it is situated. The studies must address, importantly, how these huge entities impact the rest of the world and whether that is sustainable. In Istanbul, the process is encouraging a much more comprehensive approach to theses analyses.

NUNLEY: In advance of this UN conference, your organizing committee has solicited success stories, that is, best practices, which are innovative programs that have been developed by governments and activists, which could be adapted and implemented elsewhere. Now, what are some of these best practices that you'll be highlighting and sharing at this meeting?

N'DOW: We have just finished an inventory of over 600 of these best practices. It is the first time this inventory process is taking place across regions in all parts of the world. And it's the first time that we're going not only to government. We're going to local authorities; mayors are providing us with information and what is being tried. We're going to the NGO community, civil society. We're going to youth groups. We're going to foundations that are involved in this. We're going to churches and religious institutions that are active in the fields of shelter and the urban challenge. In the US, one of the winners of this contest is the city of Chattanooga which, as you know, some couple of decades ago was one of the worst places, perhaps in this country, on pollution. Chattanooga, Tennessee. Today that place is cleaned up and there's very good examples of civic action going on. It is one of the winners of this contest. There are 12 of them, places in Africa, projects in Asia, 2 from the US. These are going to be showcased in Istanbul.

NUNLEY: You had a very impressive list there of NGOs, churches and religious organizations and governments and so on. But one organization or group of organizations that I didn't hear mentioned was multinational corporations. These are the folks who own the land, they own the means of production. And to a certain extent they're fueling this massive urbanization. Are they going to be at the conference? And what sort of role should they be playing?

N'DOW: Any debate about the urban future that does not include them would perhaps not be meaningful, so one of the most important things we have done is to say to them, you are critical to finding solutions and bringing about a livable future. So contribute not only materially. Come now into this effort and contribute intellectually in terms of ideas to how we can solve the problems of the 21st century. And they are they and they are participating in the best practices as well as other effort that the conference is making possible.

NUNLEY: Now, to match, it seems, the world's population explosion, there's been an explosion of UN conferences. In the past 4 years we've had the Earth Summit, the Population Summit, the Women's Conference, now Habitat. Some people have been critical in saying there are too many meetings and not enough action. Why do we need another conference, and what do you hope to accomplish?

N'DOW: These are no mere meetings of people coming in just to talk and go home. Debating the fortunes of the human society, on its survival, basically, talking about the environment, the carrying capacity of the earth, talking about the impacts of our lives and livelihoods, on environmental features of nations and peoples, talking about population, those are no mere discussions. These are consultations on our own survival.

NUNLEY: Dr. Wally N'Dow is Secretary General of Habitat II, the UN Conference on human settlements. He spoke with us from the UN offices in New York City.



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