16 January 2007

Cities bursting at the seams

Next year, for the first time in history, more than half of all humans will be living in cities, with dire health, environmental and social consequences.

Next year, for the first time in history, more than half of all humans will be living in cities, with dire health, environmental and social consequences, according to a report by the Worldwatch Institute.

Only a century ago, the vast majority of people lived in rural areas, but by some time next year more than half of all people will live in urban areas, according to State of the World 2007: Our Urban Future, released this month by the Worldwatch Institute.

Over 60 million people—roughly the population of France—are added to the planet’s burgeoning cities each year, mostly in low-income urban settlements in developing countries.

1 billion live in slums
Unplanned urbanization is taking a huge toll on human health and the quality of the environment, contributing to social, ecological and economic instability in many countries.

Of the 3 billion urban dwellers today, 1 billion live in slums, defined as areas where people cannot secure necessities such as clean water, a nearby toilet or durable housing. An estimated 1.6 million urban residents die each year due to lack of clean water and sanitation.

“For a child living in a slum, disease and violence are daily threats, while education and health care are often a distant hope,” said Molly O’Meara Sheehan, State of the World 2007 project director.

“Policymakers need to address the ‘urbanization of poverty’ by stepping up investments in education, healthcare and infrastructure.”

From 1970 to 2000, urban aid worldwide was estimated at $60 billion—just 4 percent of the $1.5 trillion in total development assistance.

A crisis for Africa second only to HIV/AIDS
The Commission for Africa has identified urbanization as the second greatest challenge, after HIV/AIDS, confronting the world’s most rapidly urbanizing continent.

Only about 35 percent of Africa’s population is urban, but this figure is predicted to rise to 50 percent by 2030.

“The promise of independence has given way to the harsh realities of urban living mainly because too many of us were ill-prepared for our urban future,” notes Anna Tibaijuka, executive director of UN-HABITAT, in the State of the World 2007 foreword.

Hope lies with urban pioneers
State of the World 2007 describes how community groups and local governments have emerged as pioneers of groundbreaking policies to address urban problems, in some cases surpassing the efforts of their national governments.

“The task of saving the world’s modern cities might seem hopeless—except that it is already happening,” said Christopher Flavin, Worldwatch Institute president. “Necessities from food to energy are increasingly being produced by urban pioneers inside city limits.”

Among the many examples of cities taking the lead, the report sites the following:

  • Karachi, Pakistan: hundreds of thousands of informal settlement households have been linked with good-quality sewers. By taking charge of the pipes connecting their houses to lane sewers, residents cut costs to a fifth of what they would have paid the official water and sanitation agency.
  • Freetown, Sierra Leone: after a multi-year civil war, a swelling population has successfully turned to urban farming to meet much of its food demand.
  • Rizhao, China: a government programme enabled 99 percent of households in the central districts to obtain solar water heaters, while most traffic signals and street lights are powered by solar cells, limiting carbon emissions and pollution.
  • Bogotá, Colombia: engineers improved upon the iconic bus rapid transit system of Curitiba, Brazil, to create the TransMilenio, decreasing air pollution and improving quality of life.

Cities wise up to climate change
While cities cover only 0.4 percent of the Earth’s surface, they generate most of the world’s carbon emissions, making urban areas key to alleviating the climate crisis, notes State of the World 2007.

The good news is that many cities have begun to take climate change seriously, often in response to direct threats they face. Of the 33 cities projected to have 8 million or more residents by 2015, at least 21 are coastal and will be contending with sea-level rise from climate change.

In the United States, over 300 cities—home to over 51 million Americans—have joined the U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, committed to reducing emissions and lobbying federal government for a national climate policy.

For example, Chicago has negotiated with a private utility to provide 20 percent of the city government’s electricity from renewable sources by 2010, while Mayor Michael Bloomberg has vowed to make New York the nation’s leader in emission reduction.

A city is a collective dream
“A city is a collective dream. To build this dream is vital,” observes Jaime Lerner, former governor of Paraná, Brazil, and former mayor of Curitiba, in his foreword to State of the World 2007.

“It is in our cities that we can make the most progress toward a more peaceful and balanced planet, so we can look at an urban world with optimism instead of fear.”

Adapted from a press release by the World Watch Institute

- Health24, January 2007

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