City of Dreams...

The quest for the sustainable city

The world's population will reach 6 billion during the year UNEP's GEO-2000 is published. Currently, a staggering 80 million people a year are added to the total population.

The brunt of this growth will be borne by urban areas. In the last 50 years, the population in and around cities has grown from 750 million to 2.5 billion, mainly as a result of rural communities migrating to urban areas. By 2025, the world's cities will be home to 5 billion - with 90 per cent of growth coming in developing nations.

Numerous environmental issues are raised by the creation of so-called "megacities". Most obviously, urban residents generally consume more resources than rural dwellers. This creates an "ecological footprint" which is much greater than the actual area a city covers.

London's ecological footprint, for example, considering only its consumption of food and forest products, and the area needed to assimilate its carbon dioxide emissions is 125 times greater than the area of the city itself.

The problems for urban populations are particularly acute in the developing world. The issues they face include backlogs in housing and infrastructure development, overcrowded transportation systems, deteriorating sanitation and environmental pollution.

Nevertheless, people continue to migrate to cities in search of a better life. In Africa, cities such as Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Lagos and Kinshasa have grown sevenfold between 1950 and 1980. All told, 600 million people in Africa, Asia and Latin America live in squatter settlements or shanty towns.

The results of this demographic shift to cities are catastrophic. According to GEO-2000, "inadequate provision of water, sanitation, drainage and garbage removal" means many people's lives and health are under continuous threat." This should also be seen as an indictment of the conditions in the countryside that have driven people into cities.

City dwellers generate large quantities of solid waste and sewage which cannot be adequately managed. In Lusaka, for example, inhabitants produce 1400 tonnes of solid waste daily - 90% of which is not collected because the local authority has too few staff, funds and equipment.

This lack of sanitization has led to an increase in water-borne diseases. More than 1.5 million people a year die in Africa from malaria - a disease which spreads via poor drainage in urban environments.

The water issue also highlights urban inequities. The poor majority in urban slums generally pay four times more for safe water than those in elite residential areas.

Urban inhabitants do not just suffer from inadequate sanitation. Air pollution, mainly due to fossil fuel burning for motor vehicles and industry, is an equally severe problem in developing cities. In China, smoke and particles from burning coal cause 50,000 premature deaths and 400,000 new cases of chronic bronchitis a year in 11 of its largest cities.

Chemical discharge is also a widespread problem. In Southeast Asia, much industrial waste, including hazardous chemicals, are discharged without treatment. On a positive note, many countries have introduced legislation to combat the problem.

One key issue, which is often overlooked, is the impact that urban living has on environmental awareness. GEO-2000 points out that "most of the world's children born in the 21st century will be born in cities with their perceptions and consumption behaviour shaped by an urban environment."

The fear of GEO-2000 is that "the innate environmental sensitivity of people raised on the land or close to nature is being lost."

This very real threat needs to be countered by measures designed to raise understanding. As part of its recommendations, GEO-2000 stresses that environmental education, like mathematics, should be "an integral part of the standard educational curriculum." Better public access to environmental information also needs to be provided.

Perhaps the toughest educational requirement outlined by GEO-2000 is for engineers, economists and the media to be acquainted with the implications of environmental degradation on urban and rural dwellers alike. However, GEO-2000 also acknowledges the efforts of local authorities "joining forces to promote the concept of the sustainable city."

Read on: Press release | City of Dreams | Water, water, everywhere | Think global, act sustainable | Life's a gas | Looking on the bright side | Issues | Indicators | UNEP's profile | Overview
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