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Issue 1: Community Revitalization

The Urban Revolution

by Klaus Toepfer

In less than a year, at the dawn of the new millennium, an urban revolution is set to take place: for the first time in human history, one half of the world’s population will be urban.

This urban revolution will escalate over the next three decades when urban populations will grow to twice the size of rural populations. The bulk of this new urban population will be African and Asian, joining the vast pool of urban citizens in Europe, North America and Latin America, where three-quarters of the population is already urbanized. Africa, currently the least urbanized continent, will have two-thirds of its population living in cities by the year 2020. And the biggest, most densely populated megacities with populations of over 10 million will be located in the South, not the North.

Although cities are — and will remain — the centers of global finance, industry and communications, home to a wealth of cultural diversity and political dynamism, immensely productive, creative and innovative, they have also become breeding grounds for poverty, violence, pollution and congestion. Unsustainable patterns of consumption among dense city populations, concentration of industries, intense economic activities, increased motorization and inefficient waste management all suggest that the major environmental problems of the future will be city problems.

At least 600 million urban residents in developing countries — and the numbers are growing — already live in housing of such poor quality and with such inadequate provision of water, sanitation and drainage, that their lives and health are under continuous threat. For many millions of people around the world, urban living has become a nightmare, far removed from the dream of safety and prosperity held out by city visionaries, especially for the young, who will inherit the urban millennium.

Not only are we living in an urbanizing world, we are also experiencing an unprecedented urbanization of poverty. In most cities of the developing world, up to one half of the urban population lives in “informal” slum and squatter settlements, which are neither legally recognized nor serviced by city authorities. The informal parts of the city do not enjoy many of the benefits of urban life, including access to basic services, health care and clean running water. Residents live in constant fear of eviction and most do not have access to formal finance and loan schemes which could enable them to improve their living conditions. Yet, this invisible majority is indispensable to the economy of the city.

The “formal city,” in contrast, enjoys the advantages of city life, often at the expense of the informal city. This modern tale of two cities within one city is one of the greatest failures of the urban revolution, as it alienates and marginalizes one part of the urban population from the other.

Yet, despite all its problems and challenges, cities continue to grow; history has shown that all attempts to limit urbanization have failed. It is now widely accepted that urbanization is not only inevitable, but is a positive phenomenon. Cities exist because they offer opportunities and the promise of a better life. In cities it is possible to integrate human, economic and technological resources to maximum effect. Well-functioning cities are also a pre-condition for successful rural development.

But poor governance and bad policies have led to severe environmental degradation and deteriorating living conditions in many cities around the world. There is no doubt that cities have the potential to be safe and healthy for all their residents. The biggest challenge lies in focusing on the social dimension of urban poverty, in designing new strategies and approaches in the management of urban areas, as well as in proposing innovative methods to improve the physical environment and infrastructure.

It is apparent that many governments are under-prepared and under-resourced in anticipating, planning and preparing for an urbanizing world. The City Summit, held in Istanbul in 1996, grappled with this reality and concluded that the onus of addressing the urban challenge rests not only with governments, but with other urban actors, such as local authorities and civil society, including non-governmental organizations and the private sector. This inclusive approach ensures that no urban group is left out of the decision- making process and that all residents have equal rights to the city.

As the Istanbul Conference demonstrated, citizens of cities are demanding to be seen and heard and to be given the authority to make decisions about their living environment. The urban poor, who will constitute a majority of the urban population in the 21st century, should have a voice and a choice in where and how to live.

Although many countries lack the financial resources and the legal and the institutional framework to respond to rapid urbanization, many local authorities have already begun to take on this new approach by adopting more open, accountable and transparent systems of urban governance. Efficient urban managers are relying less on top-down processes based on blueprints and masterplans and more on interactive, dynamic processes built on partnerships.

These processes have been further strengthened by the growing trend towards decentralization, which has dramatically altered the role and working methods of local authorities. Democratic debate and participatory decision-making have already transformed the ways in which some city councils and municipalities plan and manage cities. By involving all residents, both rich and poor, men and women, in the city’s agenda-setting processes, city authorities can create a sense of ownership and responsibility among all inhabitants of the city. Through such processes, cities of the future can truly become cities for all.

Humanity’s future lies in cities. If we take action now, cities of despair can become cities of hope and joy.

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