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World Resources 1996-97
(A joint publication by The World Resource Institute, The United
 Nations Environment Programme, The United Nations Development
 Programme, and the World Bank)
 (Edited by Dr. Róbinson Rojas)

1. Cities and the Environment

Box 1.4 Sharing Responsibility for Inner-City Problems

Protecting the environment has usually meant halting the encroachment of development in pristine areas. And environmental protection has most often been defined as something outside of, and mostly unrelated to, the concerns and interests of our cities (1).

Those of us who have been grappling with the problems of U.S. cities have been concerned with jobs, housing, and transportation. We have been concerned with public services--schools, fire protection, law enforcement. With the exception perhaps of air pollution, environmental concerns have been too often perceived as a luxury reserved for the suburbs.

At the same time, the poor, especially poor minority U.S. residents, have become increasingly concentrated in inner cities. Once the anchors of the United States' industrial manufacturing base, inner cities are now paying the price of years of environmental abuse. Businesses have moved to the suburbs or overseas and plants have been shut down, leaving behind "brownfields"--empty buildings on contaminated lots that no one wants to develop. This legacy of industrial pollution contributes to the poverty in these communities by impeding revitalization; it leads to communities that literally cannot sustain themselves.

Clearly, environmental concerns are critical to the future of our urban communities. Today in the United States, as in other countries, many of us are wrestling with the concept of "sustainable communities," trying to develop new ways to integrate environmental concerns with issues of economic and social equity.

The U.S. experience has shown all too clearly that while social and economic divisions are inevitable, they are potentially devastating when they become spatially fixed in urban settings. When poor people become concentrated in precisely defined geographic areas, their problems are sure to grow almost exponentially. We have experienced this firsthand in our most populous cities, where the concentration of mostly minority poor in inner cities has been accompanied by soaring unemployment, increased and prolonged welfare dependency, rising crime, and public health problems too numerous to mention.

There has been an unfortunate tendency in this country to blame these problems on the urban poor. But it is the sheer number of poor people and the density of poverty that have eviscerated these communities and turned them into places where there are few viable businesses and no job base--where there is virtually no chance to lift yourself and your children to a better life.

Spatial separation by income and ethnic group can spur environmental degradation. When better-off people abandon communities, they also abandon their stake in the physical well- being of those places. Thus, places where the poor and politically dispossessed live inevitably become places where environmental problems are too easily ignored--where sewage systems break down, where water purification is inadequate, where vermin infest garbage-filled lots and invade dwellings, where children eat lead paint from walls in deteriorating apartment buildings.

We are beginning to understand in the United States that withdrawal from the cities is no answer. Middle- and upper-income families may flee to the suburbs, but the problems of the inner city are sure to follow them.

The problems of the inner city may follow in the form of increased public outlays for welfare assistance, indigent health care, and public safety, draining scarce resources from other needs-- schools, parks, libraries. And they may follow in the form of expanding concentric waves of crime, drugs, and violence that spill over into neighboring areas, eroding their stability and threatening other, more removed areas in turn.

Evidence has shown that there is a direct correlation between the economic health of greater metropolitan areas and the economic health of central cities. When central cities flourish, surrounding communities flourish as well. Where central city economies stagnate and decline, the economies of surroundi ng greater metropolitan areas suffer. Yet most cities remain politically divided from their surrounding communities.

Part of the solution to the problems our cities face is to think of governance in terms of broader regional or metropolitan-wide units. Here in the United States, that requires greater acceptance of mutual responsibility by local governments and increased cooperation across traditional jurisdictional lines. For example, in the seven-county MinneapolisţSt. Paul region in Minnesota, 188 municipalities have been pooling property tax revenues since 1971. They have been redistributing those revenues to achieve greater parity in resources among jurisdictions. The city of Minneapolis, which was once a net revenue recipient, is now the region's largest net revenue generator.

No amount of enlightened regional governance, however, can succeed unless we reduce concentrations of poverty. We must dismantle the barriers that separate poor minority people from the rest of society. Those people who live in these isolated urban pockets must be enabled to move into the wider community where they can find jobs and gain access to better services. At the same time, these distressed communities must be restored as places where people of all ethnic groups and income levels can choose to live--because there is decent housing, because the streets are safe, because the schools are good, because there are jobs, parks, libraries, and other amenities that make urban living attractive. In a diverse community where everyone has a stake, environmental concerns are addressed and the quality of life improves.

--Henry Cisneros 

Henry Cisneros is Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and
Urban Development, Washington, D.C.

References and Notes

1. Box is excerpted from a speech presented at the Second Annual World
   Bank Conference on Environmentally Sustainable Development,
   September 19, 1994, Washington, D.C.

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