Urban Problems Mushrooming
First Ever Database of Urban Solutions Created

From Washington, D.C. and Dubai, UAE

More than one and a half billion people in the world’s cities will face life and health threatening environments by 2025, unless a revolution in urban problem-solving takes place, according to the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat).

“Cities have the resources to solve problems — 50 to 80 percent of most developing countries’ Gross National Product comes from cities — but they are not adequately prepared for the huge influx of urban residents,” says Dr. Wally N’Dow, head of Habitat.

Solutions to growing urban problems will be discussed at the International Conference on Best Practices in Improving Living Environments in Dubai, United Arab Emirates from November 19-22. The conference, jointly sponsored and organized by the Municipality of Dubai, one of the world’s most progressive cities, and the United Nations, will analyze and catalogue the best urban practices — programs that have worked — into the first ever “best practices” database. The database will be made available to all national and local governments, and will describe how these practices have been put into effect in cities of both developing and developed countries.

“This database of best practices will become the first stop on the information super-highway for city managers, major local government officials and private urban investors,” says Dr. N’Dow, who is also the Secretary General of the Habitat II conference (June 3-14, 1996), the last major UN Conference this century. “The goal of the Best Practices Conference is simple — to define and organize the best information and success stories for cities around the world in advance of the Habitat II Conference in Istanbul in 1996.

“With more people migrating to cities, and less money for city governments to invest, the only way to
improve conditions is to find less wasteful, more cost-effective urban projects. The database will help both developed and developing countries find the most effective solutions to urban problems.”

The Best Practices Cities

Habitat is currently reviewing more than 300 “best practices” nominations from cities in about 80 countries worldwide. For the Dubai conference, 25 successful projects will be highlighted for use as models for future programs in cities worldwide. These 25 practices will also be the first entries into the new database. Some of the cities noted for the best urban practices are:

  • In North America — Chattanooga, Tenn; Hamilton-Wentworth, Ontario, Canada;
  • South/Central America — Curitiba, Brazil; Bogota, Colombia; Limpio, Paraguay; Managua, Nicaragua;
  • Europe — Leicester, United Kingdom; Kuopio, Finland; Vienna, Austria;
  • Asia — Cebu, Philippines; Delhi, India;
  • North Africa/Middle East — Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE); Alexandria, Egypt; Tehran, Iran;
  • Africa — Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Rufisque, Senegal.

The criteria for “best practices” cities are:

  • Impact — Programs that have achieved the most tangible improvements in the lives and livelihoods of women, men, and children;
  • Partnerships — The cities and communities that were able to form lasting partnerships between local and national governments, community organizations, the private sector and international agencies;
  • Sustainability — Initiatives which have resulted in changes in legislation, policies and decision-making, ensuring that the benefits to people are sustained. Habitat says that projects based on one-time external funding, even if they bring short-term results, did not improve people’s lives as much as sustained approaches.

For example, Curitiba, Brazil has implemented five succesful projects:

  • A combined land-use planning/public transportation system has resulted in 75 percent of Curitiba’s commuters traveling by bus despite having Brazil’s second highest per capita car ownership;
  • Waste collected by low-income families is exchanged for bus tickets and food, alleviating two of the poor’s heaviest financial burdens, while saving the city the cost of waste collection;
  • Green space has increased from .5 square meters to 50 square meters per capita because of a combined water and park management program;
  • A combined solid waste/job creation program has employed more than 4,000 people, treated 7,000 tons of waste, and cleaned up more than 1100 acres (450 hectares) of public space;
  • Development of a large number of public libraries, equipped with modern computer technology, suitable for young people.

“Curitiba is a wonderful example because cities that follow this lead can jump-start the economies, assist the poorest of their poor and clean-up their cities,” says Dr. N’Dow.

In 1970, Chattanooga, Tennessee was one of the most polluted cities in the United States and faced economic and industrial decline, as well as general urban decay. By 1993, Chattanooga had — through the combined efforts of government, business and community organizations — cleaned up the air, meeting every US federal air health quality standard, instituted widespread job training and creation, provided affordable housing, cleaned up and expanded parklands and rebuilt the economy. Chattanooga is viewed as one of the first global examples of the achievement of simultaneous economic and environmental development.

The municipal structure of Dubai, UAE was designed for 50,000 people in 1950 — it now serves more than 700,000. Dubai has adjusted because of flexible urban policies and a “bottom-up” approach, whereby the most immediate needs of the city are resolved before all others are even discussed. Environmental management, including the participation of the private sector, as well as women’s education and urban planning are strong components of Dubai’s agenda.

“Dubai’s own efforts are way ahead of its time,” says Dr. N’Dow. “Its urban management has set the standard for other cities into the next century.”

Vienna, Austria recently faced a housing crisis because an outdated (1917) Rental Act had allowed housing to become dilapidated. In 1984, the city of Vienna began a housing renovation project that as of December 1994 had improved 2,808 buildings — 128,337 apartments — without evicting a single resident.

Leicester, UK was chosen as the UK’s first “environmental city” because of a pollution monitoring program. The program improves the environment by building and encouraging the use of bicycle routes, introducing curbside recycling projects and implementing promotional campaigns to inform citizens.

The Ile De France region — Paris and its suburbs — had more than 40,000 run-down apartment hotel rooms in which mostly immigrants lived. These residents were at the mercy of landlords who would not improve conditions. Local community organizations began an experimental program to upgrade one apartment hotel, which led cooperation with the Ministry of Housing. The program expanded, and from 1985 to 1991, six buildings were re-built to house the residents. Several projects in other European cities, including Brussels, Belgium and cities of the UK have used the French project as a model.

“The example in France, where the program sparked similar programs in other cities, is exactly the kind of sharing that we are aiming for,” say Dr. N’Dow. “Cities learned about a program that worked and was cost-efficient, and they went for a proven winner.”

The Public Housing authority of Hong Kong — which has a population of 6 million, most living in urban or suburban areas — responded to high land prices and overcrowding by building an average of 45,000 apartments a year, which are placed in the market at 45 percent of market value.

Tehran, Iran — by its own admission one of the most polluted cities in the world — has undertaken several steps to reduce carbon monoxide emissions. Some 1500 buses are being converted from diesel fuel to compressed natural gas. The municipality also enforces mandatory emissions inspections in Restricted Traffic Zones. As a result, the green space per person in Tehran increased from 2.5 square meters to 10 square meters in 1993.

“While these cities have demonstrated new ways of dealing with urban problems, too many cities are still hindered by poor management,” says Dr. N’Dow. Examples of poor practices that are crippling cities:

  • About 95 percent of the world’s sewage is poured straight into rivers and other water flows, where it is joined by growing amounts of industrial waste. Sewage is rarely treated even in middle income countries. Buenos Aires, for example, treats only two percent of its sewage, a figure typical of Latin America.
  • Poor urban management of water in the Middle East and North Africa, where growing population and development have overwhelmed traditional water management practices, has caused major water shortages. From 1960 to 2025, per capita renewable water supplies in the region will have fallen from 3,430 cubic meters to 667 cubic meters, or an 80 percent drop within a single lifetime.
  • Because of poor infrastructure that cannot deal with growing populations, 30 to 50 percent of the solid waste in many cities of developing countries remains uncollected, even though these governments spend between 20 and 40 percent of their budgets on solid waste collection alone.

Habitat’s role in urban improvement is to provide institutional and technical support to governments seeking to improve urban conditions. This includes communicating examples of the best practices to cities in need and formulating specific plans for unique urban environments.

Habitat already has established formal connections between national governments in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America that share information on successful urban reforms. These governments pool technical resources and expertise to work on issues such as: water resources management, air pollution and urban transport, environmental health risks, flooding and drainage, unstable slopes, industrial risk, solid waste management, and urban agriculture.

“What does Chattanooga have to offer Belo-Horizonte, Brazil?” says Dr. N’Dow. “What about the other way around? That’s what the “best practices” conference is for — to find out what works and share the information.”

The Best Practices

Habitat’s Best Practice Initiative has categorized urban practices into five main areas. The goal of the best practices is to provide governments with concrete ways to improve their cities. The best things cities can do are:

  • Reduce urban poverty and homelessness. With urban populations exploding, cities face an increasing challenge to house, feed, and employ their residents. Currently, 500 million urban residents are homeless or poorly housed.
  • Improve urban environmental and health conditions. Currently, preventable environmental hazards are responsible for 25 percent of all premature deaths worldwide. Most of these deaths are the result of urban pollution.
  • Increase preparedness for disasters. Every year, billions of dollars and thousands of lives are lost in cities because of poor preparation for natural disasters. For example, the plague outbreak in Surat, India in 1994 cost more than $1.5 billion, much more than would have been needed to improve conditions and prevent the outbreak.

An example of a prepared city: In 1991, after month-long floods, 10 million people were left homeless in Anhui, China. The relief effort has already re-housed everyone in better housing than they had previously, while improving land use to increase land available for agriculture.

  • Forge new partnerships between consumers and private industry. This includes finding new and cost-effective means of reducing pollution and waste and changing attitudes and habits. For example, in the Philippines, San Miguel Breweries spear-headed a program to ensure that all of its transporters complied with emission standards. The success of the initiative caused it to be adopted by more than 50 other companies throughout the Philippines, showing how the urban improvements idea-sharing can come from the private as well as the public sector.
  • Improve government macro-economic policy, including reviewing subsidies and new taxation policies that encourage private sector investments. Such policies would eliminate barriers to entry into markets, especially for small businesses.

One main way urban resources are wasted is unnecessary subsidies. These subsidies cause resources to be sold for much less than their actual worth. If unnecessary subsidies are eliminated, natural resources will be protected from massive exploitation because the cost of purchasing and using them will reflect their real value. That means that the resources will no longer be depleted without bringing in enough money to make up for their loss.

Subsidies also reduce incentives to improve conditions. For example, housing improvements are rare in rent controlled areas because landlords cannot obtain reasonable rents to earn back money spent on improvements.

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