7 June 2001


Press Briefing


At a Headquarters press conference this afternoon, a diverse panel of senior urban planners emphasized the undeniable benefits of forging housing and urban development partnerships with international financial institutions and other intergovernmental organizations.  At the same time, they underscored their belief that some of the strongest and perhaps even more satisfying partnerships were forged locally, at the community level.

Correspondents heard brief urban housing and policy management case studies, based on the experiences of representatives of a central government, a local authority and a non-governmental organization.  The panelists included, respectively, Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele, South African Minister of Housing, Mats Pemer, Director of the Strategic Planning Department for the Stockholm City Planning Administration, and Jockin Arputham, a representative of the National Slum-dwellers Federation.  They presented three of the 16 cases set to be examined in round-table discussions, during the General Assembly's special review of progress made in achieving adequate shelter for all and sustainable human settlements development since the 1996 United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), currently under way at Headquarters. 

Introducing the panel, Sharad Shankardass, Spokesman for the Executive Director of Habitat, said that, given the sprit of Istanbul, the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements had felt it would be important to highlight the critical role of partnerships in the implementation of the Habitat Agenda during the special session.  Indeed, the positive experiences and varied partnership approaches of the panelists truly represented one of the core principles of the Agenda:  to promote partnerships that succeed.

Ms. Mthembi-Mahanyele said that in 1994, South Africa's Housing Ministry had inherited a housing backlog that resulted from stifled development initiatives during the apartheid years.  The new Government therefore began to seek partners who could begin to institute policies and programmes to help eradicate the country's large number of informal settlements.  The first place they looked for help was within local communities.  Through the People's Housing Process, the Government had organized and mobilized communities around various housing programmes, and then augmented those local efforts with technical support and capital housing subsidies to support the poorest of the poor and the unemployed.  Such a joint programme ensured that people really did rise above their disadvantages.

She said that South Africa had also sought contracting partnerships with a view to including emerging or uncertified artisans, whose work had gone unnoticed or unrecognized by the established construction sector.  Partnerships were also sought with financial institutions which would recognize the special circumstances of the poorest of the poor -- persons whose income fell below $3,500 a year -- who had been left out of the loop during apartheid.  She added that addressing that issue was even more crucial, because during the 1980s, when the tensions and conflict in the country were at their worst, some national banks had retaliated against citizens or communities that had participated in general boycotts or civil disobedience.  Along with promoting savings programmes among the nation’s poorest people, small banks had actively participated in programmes that provided micro-loans to poor people.

Ms. Mthembi-Mahanyele said that local or informal level partnerships for housing had also been initiated with some farmers who had actually ceded land for development.  Further, the Ministry had established the Home Loan Mortgage Disclosure Act, passed in 1998 to ensure fair and equitable treatment for all.  Overall, she had fond that the strongest partners were the communities themselves, and at the end of the month she planned to launch a national savings scheme that would mobilize community resources from across the country within a common fund that could be used as collateral for various development projects.  She said it was important to note that South Africa's constitution guaranteed the right to adequate housing.

A correspondent wondered if, in building new homes for squatters coming into the cities, the focus of the South African Government was on repatriating illegal immigrants.  Ms. Mthembi-Mahanyele said that the Governments focus was on providing services to its people in urban areas.  It also tried to look at where people were currently settled, in order to ensure that people in unstable areas were moved to safety.  At the same time, the Government was looking to ensure that, where conditions were satisfactory, people stayed where they were.  That strategy would ensure that rural-urban migration patterns could be influenced by sustainability.

Of his urban planning experiences, Mr. Pemer noted that while the city of Stockholm, with its population of only 750,000, was small by most international standards, it still endeavoured to maintain and strengthen its sustainability within a metropolitan region that included 25 neighbouring municipalities with nearly 2 million inhabitants.  The city's fastest period of development had occurred following the Second World War, when city planners had envisioned new suburbs along metro lines like "pearls on a string":  each designed as a neighbourhood unit with its own social and commercial core surrounded by housing developments.  The lessons learned from those early urban planning initiatives had led today's city fathers to believe that new strategies should be aimed at building more compact cities.

Indeed, he continued, new strategies focused on recasting a Stockholm that was built "from the outside to the inside".  Such a plan would above all promote the re-use of land rather than the development of virgin areas.  Where business had been shut down or moved since the 1950s, urban planners were now transforming those spaces into new and sustainable mixed-use facilities, including housing developments, offices, parks and cultural services.  He added that building the city inwards would help sustain another one of Stockholm's most important characteristics:  it was both a "blue" and a "green" city, highlighted by its location along the Baltic Archipelago and Lake Malaren, as well as by its many large heavily forested preserves.  He added that partnerships were needed in order to ensure that the new city planning projects were completed successfully.

Mr. Arputham said that as a slum-dweller in Bombay, his urban planning experiences had been unique.  With a population of some 12 million people, 6 million of whom lived in slums, the challenge of providing adequate sanitation in Bombay had reached critical mass.  So much so that in one of the larger slums, lines queued for days on end to use the toilet, because there was only one available per 800 people. In an effort to address those egregious conditions, the Bombay Municipal Corporation had enlisted the aid of the World Bank to provide loans that would install sewer connections in areas where there were none, as well as replace crumbling infrastructure.  But after seven years of negotiations, nothing had been accomplished -- not even a single toilet had been built.

Mr. Arputham said that after so much time and money had been wasted, his group, along with other local non-governmental partners and community actors, had come together in order to find a way to solve the problem.  In consultation with the Municipal Corporation, the consortium requested whatever moneys remained available with the promise that the community itself would design and place the toilets where they were needed.  Using local masons, artisans and planners, the group rapidly developed a model and subsequently had two operational toilets in place within six months.  That initiative was quickly followed by the development of multi-seat sanitation facilities in the worst slum areas, some of which were specifically geared toward the needs of children. 

He said that after witnessing such progress, the Municipal Corporation renewed its association with the non-governmental organizations.  By next year, the groups would have helped to create some 320 blocs of community sanitation facilities in Bombay.  He said that this case demonstrated the importance of creating and modifying partnerships to find solutions to problems that were not easily solved by one government or agency.  "Unless communities are part of all development efforts, almost no urban management initiatives can be successful", he added.

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For information media. Not an official record.