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Progress in the world’s cities will
decide the future of Planet Earth

A report by the Worldwatch Institute

13 January 2007: If global development priorities are not reassessed to account for massive urban poverty, well over half of the 1.1 billion people projected to join the world’s population between now and 2030 may live in under-serviced slums, says a report published in January 2007. Additionally, while cities cover only 0.4 per cent of the Earth’s surface, they generate the bulk of the world’s carbon emissions, making cities key to alleviating the climate crisis, notes the report.

The report ‘State of the World 2007’ by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute further points out that as recently as a century ago, the vast majority of the world’s people lived in rural areas, but by sometime during 2008 more than half of all people will live in urban areas. Over 60 million people—roughly the population of France—are now added to the planet’s burgeoning cities and suburbs each year, mostly in low-income urban settlements in developing countries.

Unplanned and chaotic 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 three billion urban dwellers today, one billion live in slums, defined as areas where people cannot secure key 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 as a result.

“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, Worldwatch 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 per cent of the $1.5 trillion in total development assistance.

The Commission for Africa has identified urbanization as the second greatest challenge confronting the world’s most rapidly urbanizing continent, after HIV/AIDS. Only about 35 per cent of Africa’s population is urban, but it is predicted that this figure will jump to 50 per cent 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 report’s foreword.

The report also describes how community groups and local governments have emerged as pioneers of groundbreaking policies to address both poverty and environmental concerns, 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, president of the Worldwatch Institute. “Necessities from food to energy are increasingly being produced by urban pioneers inside city limits.”

Among the many examples of cities taking the lead in shaping a sustainable future cited in the report:

• In Karachi, Pakistan, the Orangi Pilot Project has linked hundreds of thousands of low-income households in informal settlements with good-quality sewers. By taking charge of the pipes connecting their houses to lane sewers, local residents cut costs to a fifth of what they would have been charged by the official water and sanitation agency.

• In Freetown, Sierra Leone, after the cessation of a multi-year civil war, a swelling population has successfully turned to urban farming to meet much of its food demand.

• In Rizhao, China, a government programme enabled 99 per cent of households in the central districts to obtain solar water heaters, while most traffic signals and street and park lights are powered by solar cells, limiting the city’s carbon emissions and urban pollution.

• In Bogotá, Colombia, engineers improved upon the iconic bus rapid transit system of Curitiba, Brazil, to create the TransMilenio, which has helped decrease air pollution, increase quality of life, and inspire similar projects in Europe, North America, and Asia.

Cities around the world have also begun to take climate change seriously, many in response to the direct threat they face. Of the 33 cities projected to have at least 8 million residents by 2015, at least 21 are coastal cities that will have to contend with sea-level rise from climate change.

In the United States, over 300 cities—home to more than 51 million Americans—have joined the US Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, committing to reducing their emissions and lobbying the federal government for a national climate policy. Chicago, for example, has negotiated with a private utility to provide 20 per cent of the city government’s electricity from renewable sources by 2010, and aims to become “the most environmentally friendly city in America.” Not to be outdone, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced plans for his city to become the nation’s leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

While no single set of ‘best practices’ would enable all cities to successfully address the challenges of poverty and environmental degradation, the report focuses on areas where urban leadership can have huge benefits for the planet and human development. These include providing water and sanitation services to the urban poor, bolstering urban farming, and improving public transportation. Additionally, the report recommends devoting more resources to information gathering on urban issues so that city, national, and international entities can better assess development priorities.

“A city is a collective dream. To build this dream is vital,” observes Jaime Lerner, the former governor of Paraná, Brazil, and the former mayor of Curitiba, in his foreword to the report. “It is in our cities where 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.”

World Mayor 2023