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Partnerships for the urban environment

The urban environmental crisis will continue to be one of the most pressing problems facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Most of the world's gravest environmental threats to air quality, water quality and availability, waste disposal, and energy consumption are exacerbated by the high density and activity of urban life. Governments acting alone cannot successfully address these challenges - what is needed are partnerships between local governments, the private sector and citizens' groups working together to find solutions.

At present, half the global population lives in cities; by 2025, two thirds of the world's people will live in urban areas. Urban planners and population experts increasingly cite the need to focus efforts to achieve sustainable development of human settlements in urban areas, although environmental and other impacts of urban life undoubtedly will be felt far beyond city limits.

At least 600 million urban dwellers currently live in environments that threaten not only their health but their lives. According to the United Nations Secretariat for the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), for example, urban development often magnifies the risk of flash flooding, as urbanization of land increases the volume and speed of runoff, thereby significantly increasing flood severity. In addition, the hazards of poor air and water quality are serious and pervasive. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), last year four million children in developing countries under the age of five died from acute respiratory diseases. Many were stricken by air pollution in poorly ventilated huts where cow dung and other agricultural wastes as well as wood are used for heating and cooking. Stress from polluted air in the home is compounded in the urban environment; air quality in all 20 of the world's largest cities already falls below WHO standards. Lead levels in urban air, primarily produced by automobile exhaust, are dangerously high, contributing to the lowering of IQ in children by as much as four per cent. In some cities parents are advised to keep young children indoors as much as possible to spare them from the hazards of pollution.

For many countries, poor water quality is compounded by dwindling reserves of fresh water. For example, it is estimated that Egypt is already consuming 95 per cent of its available water resources and will, along with several regions of the world, face severe water deficits within the next few decades. The World Meteorological Organization reports that global use of water is expected to triple well before the year 2050. Even where adequate resources are available, in rapidly expanding cities the ineffective infrastructure for water supply will make the supply of potable water less reliable.

Human settlements and sustainable development

The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), in Rio de Janeiro, set the goal of sustaining economic growth while maintaining the essential integrity of the Earth's ecological systems. Practical implementation of UNCED's Action Plan, known as Agenda 21, will occur largely at the local level in cities and towns, because urban areas already hold a dominant position in the distribution of population and the production and consumption of goods and services that affect the environment and the local economy.

A central task at the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), scheduled for Istanbul, Turkey, from 3 to 14 June 1996, will be to build on the achievements of UNCED, providing new impetus to environmental priorities related to human settlements.

In urban centres, two of the most pressing problems facing the world today come together: poverty and environmental degradation. The poor are least able to adapt and respond to environmental threats. Especially in large cities, poor people are disproportionately threatened by environmental hazards and health risks. Additionally, they often live in close proximity to waste-disposal sites or industrial areas. Informal settlements are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters because of their location (floodplain, landslide-prone hillsides) and low standard of infrastructure, accommodation and basic services. Furthermore, the inhabitants of informal settlements are likely to belong to low-income groups and have the fewest opportunities to lessen potential disaster impacts. To improve the quality of life in urban areas, efforts must be made to reduce poverty and environmental threats to the most vulnerable sectors of society.

Habitat II can also be seen as an opportunity applying many of the principles, resolutions and plans that have emerged from other major United Nations conferences into action in the area of human settlements. The 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo, underscored that population growth drives most interactions of urban development and environment. It concluded that improvements in basic health, especially child and reproductive health, lead to lower birth rates. In many countries, women become pregnant many times to be confident that some offspring will survive to productive adulthood and provide for the parents' old age. But as childhood survival rates improve - in part a consequence of improved living standards - the number of pregnancies declines. Indeed, fertility rates are decreasing in virtually all developing countries, but migration to cities of people in search of economic opportunity continues to grow, placing increasing stress on urban infrastructure.

Habitat II's Global Plan of Action (the Habitat Agenda) will be a catalyst for action to improve the urban environment. The modern world processes and consumes vast quantities of materials and energy. Good urban planning can promote the optimal use of these resources, while minimizing environmental pollution despite large concentrations of people.

Cities as centres of innovation: partnerships for problem-solving

Habitat II aims to address the many challenges of the urban environment. In doing so, it will foster an inclusive approach to problem-solving, building on partnerships between Governments, NGOs, communities, households and the private sector to address complicated human settlements questions. The Habitat II process has explicitly sought broad participation at all levels of Government and society to ensure that the ideas and actions it generates are widely debated and implemented. This facilitates sustainable development that is supported from the top down by Governments and community leaders, but implemented from the bottom up by citizens and civic groups.

In certain aspects, the preparatory process for Habitat II has been unique in its inclusion of local-government authorities. It is driven by the conviction that city development must be coordinated at the local level. The Habitat II process has led to wide participation in the preparation of national plans of action, and networks of local non-governmental organizations have helped bring together disparate community groups and other stakeholders. Habitat II seeks to be a catalyst for improved urban governance and planning on a global basis that is transparent, democratic and equitable.

There is evidence that such partnerships are already under way. Women, in particular, play an important role in organizing their communities and mobilizing local resources, especially in low-income urban areas of developing countries. Private-public partnerships are becoming increasingly common for the provision of infrastructure in urban areas such as waste disposal projects and housing. These partnerships prove particularly useful to municipal authorities who, though maintaining a regulatory function, often lack the resources to provide or manage infrastructure. In some countries, for example, more than 50 per cent of urban solid waste goes uncollected on a regular basis. Through forming partnerships with private-sector enterprises, NGOs or community-based organizations, however, local Governments can successfully meet such challenges.

Partnerships also enable government authorities to respond more efficiently to growing and varied demands for development of infrastructure. They vary in scale from the contracting or privatization of city-wide operations and services, such as water supply or sanitation services, to the support of individual NGOs and community-based organizations that install infrastructure in low-income settlements. For example, a private firm in the West African nation of Côte d'Ivoire (Société des Eaux du Côte d'Ivoire) operates and maintains the water supply system in Abidjan, the capital, and in most other urban centres. The Government remains responsible for investment and construction.

Best practices

Habitat II is also helping to gather and promote awareness of many other examples of urban "best practices". By disseminating these stories, participants in urban governments, the private sector, NGOs, community groups and individuals can utilize practices and programmes that have been successful elsewhere.

Partnerships can take many forms, from feasibility studies to the design, construction and management of projects, and they can address any problem area. One of the most common partnerships in both the North and the South is the contracting of infrastructure projects such as solid-waste collection and disposal. Many (although not all) case studies find that private-sector solid-waste collection has led to lowered costs. There are also an increasing number of instances where informal-sector groups of garbage collectors have been contracted to collect and dispose of solid wastes.


For example, in Cairo, an informal-sector group of garbage collectors, known as zabbaleen, and local contractors, known as wahis, were transformed into the private Environmental Protection Company (EPC). EPC has the contract for waste collection in several parts of the city. Although the responsibilities for solid-waste management have long been shared by the municipal sanitation service and the zabbaleen, the formation of the EPC established wahis and zabbaleen as key participants in the local governor's programme to upgrade solid-waste management in Cairo. The wahis administer the system, market the company's services, collect household charges and supervise service deliveries. The zabbaleen, many of whom might otherwise be homeless and without employment, collect and transport the waste.


Partnerships can also help promote the integration of communities. In Karachi, Pakistan, the Orangi Pilot Project illustrates the role of NGO-community collaboration in developing infrastructure. In the unauthorized Orangi settlement, the approximately one million inhabitants built their own homes with no public provision for sanitation. A local organization called the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) demonstrated that if local residents were more fully involved with planning their community, a cheaper and more appropriate sanitation system could be installed.

By working in groups of 10 to 15 adjacent households and with the guidance of OPP, inhabitants could pool their resources to pay the cost of initial construction of sewage lines. The estimated cost per household was one seventh of what the local authority wanted to charge to complete the project. Once the households in a "lane" became involved in installing the drains, they automatically assumed responsibility for regular maintenance and repair. The OPP showed that low-income households can afford to pay the full cost of installing basic drainage and sewerage, if all households within a street or "lane" work collectively.

United States

Partnerships between different sectors of society are working just as effectively in developed countries. In 1970, Chattanooga, Tennessee (USA), was one of the most polluted cities in the U.S. and faced economic and industrial decline, urban decay and social distress. By 1993, Chattanooga met every federal air health quality standard. It achieved this remarkable transformation by putting into place a system of public and private partnerships to improve infrastructure, provide affordable housing, promote economic development and job creation, curtail waste, educate its workforce and green the city. Projects included job training, environmental health, housing and parklands, just to name a few.

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