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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


The enormous toll urban environmental problems exact--in terms of losses to human health and quality of li fe, natural resources, and economic productivity--makes a compelling case for action.

On a global scale, the most urgent challenge is to provide for the basic needs of the urban poor and thereby alleviate the toll of human misery associated with degraded urban environments. (See Chapter 2, "Urban Environment and Human Health.") Throughout the cities of the developing world, meeting this challenge will entail activities ranging from providing fundamental urban services such as water and sanitation and garbage collection to reforming land tenure policies. Much is to be gained from encouraging income- generating activities, such as waste recycling, that simultaneously improve livelihoods and the local environment. By doing so, cities can capitalize on what has been called the "incidental greening" of cities--the efforts of the poor to manage their environments (198). Equally important is the recognition and support of the rights of the poor to know the risks to which they are exposed, to determine their priorities, and to meet their own needs through community initiatives.

Even in the developed world, addressing the linkage between poverty and the environment should be a top concern. Although such basic health threats as feces-contaminated water have long been addressed, even for the poor in high-income cities, problems in the urban social environment are posing an increasing threat to human health and well-being and, ultimately, to social stability.

A second and related challenge for cities worldwide is to develop strategies to reconcile economic growth with environmental protection. Some of the worst examples of environmental degradation can now be found in and around the rapidly industrializing cities of the developing world, where economic growth is proceeding without adequate concern for its environmental impact. These cities need to find ways to both encourage economic development and provide for the increasing demands of citizens for energy, water, and other resources--in ecologically sound ways. For higher-income cities in North America and Europe, the priority is to reduce their excessive draw on the world's natural resources. Global problems such as greenhouse gas emissions will worsen if policies are not enacted to curb the excessive resource consumption of urbanites in developed regions.

Fortunately, the dynamism and creativity that cluster in cities provide a source for solutions to these problems. Cities tend to devote a higher percentage of funds to environmental protection than do rural areas (199). T he concentration of population and activities in cities offers important economies of scale that can reduce not only the unit cost of providing services such as education or health care, but also the cost of providing vital infrastructure. Similarly, enforcing environmental regulations and collecting taxes are easier in urban areas than in dispersed rural areas (200). The job creation potential of cities can be critical in reducing poverty.

In other ways as well, cities have the potential to be far more environmentally benign than most are now. As described in Chapter 3, "Urban Impacts on Natural Resources," the spatial concentration of humans and their activities can minimize pressures on surrounding lands and natural resources. Compact cities such as Saarbrucken, Germany, and Copenhagen, Denmark, use approximately half as much energy on a per capita basis as sprawling, low-density cities such as Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Denver, Colorado, in the United States (201). Well-designed cities can channel development away from wetlands and other sensitive areas. By integrating land use and transportation planning, cities can reduce both congestion and pollution. (See Chapter 4, "Urban Transportation." ) But these benefits of urbanization will not be realized without the concerted efforts of the stakeholders involved-- national, regional, local governments, the private sector, international agencies, communities, and citizens. Achieving this will require changes in governance, from improving the formal regulatory and financing bodies of national and local governments to finding new ways to encourage the full participation of civil society.

Environmental management is complicated by issues of jurisdictional complexity. By their very nature, urban environmental problems often require strategies that span jurisdictions and sectors. This is true whether the issue is delivering water and sanitation services to low-income communities or protecting coastal ecosystems from environmental degradation. (See Box 1.7.) Without adequate solid waste management, urban drainage systems will not work, because garbage is the most common cause of blockage (202). Similarly, strategies to reduce air pollution will not work without addressing both stationary and mobile sources of emissions. Some of the most promising approaches to reducing coastal pollution are targeted at the entire watershed that feeds into the basin--often stretching over many thousands of square kilometers.

Yet, in both developed and developing countries, responsibilities for urban environmental management tend to be fragmented among different agencies and jurisdictions. The problem is especially pronounced in huge metropolitan regions, which often spread across multiple jurisdictions--in the case of Mexico City, 42 in all (203). In addition, lines of responsibility and authority are sometimes blurred among the many actors. Municipal authorities, for instance, tend to focus on the environmental concerns of local communities, such as garbage collection, while paying little attention to problems that affect adjacent municipalities or cities located downwind or downstream (204).

Problems of jurisdictional complexity are compounded in cities in developing countries, where local governments may lack both the institutional and the financial resources needed to be effective environmental managers. In the name of decentralization, local governments have been saddled with additional responsibilities for environmental management, but these often come without the necessary autonomy. In many cities of the developing world, the local capacity to generate revenues, through, for example, property taxes or user charges, is rudimentary. This inability to raise funds contributes to the failure of local authorities to properly operate and maintain those environmental facilities they do have, such as wastewater treatment plants (205).

As is described in Chapter 6, "City and Community: Toward Environmental Sustainability," strengthening local governments will be critical to improving the urban environment in the developing world. Equally important is an informed citizenry that demands environmental quality and holds governments accountable. Indeed, some of the most innovative strategies for improving the urban environment are emerging from the bottom up, from neighborhoods and communities that have the most at stake, be they in Karachi, Pakistan, or the Bronx, New York. This special section of World Resources 1996-97 describes some of the ongoing efforts to create more livable, humane, and ecologically sound cities.

References and Notes

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