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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

November 2007

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 The Urban Challenge Revisited

In the years just preceding the publication of Our Common Future, the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED),1 several catastrophes had shown the vulnerabilities of urban areas to disasters. Some, such as the earthquake that hit Mexico City or the eruption that destroyed the city of Armero in Colombia, both in 1985, were considered natural disasters. Others, such as the toxic gas leak from an industrial plant in Bhopal in 1984 and the accident in the nuclear power station in Chernobyl in 1986, were caused by human error. Today, the distinction between natural disasters and those caused by human error would be questioned because so many of the deaths, injuries, and damage to property from natural events are preventable. It is the failure of city governments to support the needed investments in disaster protection, including “disaster-proofing” buildings and infrastructure, and preparedness that turns a storm, flood, or earthquake into a disaster. The impact of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 illustrated this so clearly. The need for more competent, accountable urban governments to address urban problems, including reducing the vulnerability of urban populations to environmental hazards, is at the core of Our Common Future’s ninth chapter, “The Urban Challenge.”

When Our Common Future was published in 1987, Oxford University Press proclaimed on the book jacket, “This is the most important document of the decade on the future of the world.” In this instance, perhaps this is not just a publisher’s exaggeration. However, its importance was not so much in its originality; much of what it says had already been said and published prior to 1987. Indeed, its definition of sustainable development was based on text drawn from a book prepared for the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment.2 Three crucial factors made it stand out: its timing with clear recommendations against a backdrop of turmoil around the world, particularly in terms of environmental and development issues; its comprehensiveness, in that it brought together different themes that had not been previously discussed in a single volume; and the attention given to it as a result of the high profile and reputation of those who made up WCED.

In the mid-1980s, “environment” and “development” were discussed separately. There was the increasingly obvious need for proponents of development in low- and middle-income nations to take on key local and regional environmental issues and for environmentalists to recognize the legitimacy of development issues. These concerns had been much discussed during the 1970s, but by the early 1980s, they had fallen very low in international priorities. This was the era of the international debt crisis, in part catalyzed by the second oil price rise crisis, in part a result of the increase in real interest rates that led to debt repayment burdens that many nations could not afford. Environmental issues hardly figured in the largely neo-liberal response to the debt crisis from international agencies—not surprising given that Ronald Reagan was the U.S. president and Margaret Thatcher the U.K. prime minister. For so many low- and middle-income countries, this was the beginning of what came to be known as the lost decade for development. Our Common Future brought sustainable development back onto the development agenda and gave fresh impetus to global environmental concerns. It also insisted that meeting human needs was central to sustainable development—again something emphasized during the 1970s but forgotten by virtually all the key documents on sustainable development in the early 1980s.

Our Common Future’s chapter on the challenges facing urban areas was particularly unusual. Most general or global reports on environment or sustainable development at that time gave little or no attention to urban issues; a concern for the environment was a concern about natural resources and ecosystems and the need to protect them, not about “artificial” urban constructs. In addition, environmental health issues were rarely seen as part of any “environmental” cause. Many of those discussing environmental issues did not see urban areas as within their area of concern—or if they did, urban areas were seen as the problem. (And to an extent, this is still the case among some groups.) The very idea of having an urban chapter was not without controversy within WCED, and not all commissioners supported its inclusion. But WCED Secretary General (and ex officio member) Jim MacNeill knew that the report had to include urban issues. Not only was 40 percent of the world’s population living in urban centers at that time, but the resource demands and wastes arising from urban-based production and consumption were a key part of regional and global environmental burdens and key in links between environment and development. MacNeill had been the Canadian government’s commissioner general for the 1976 UN Conference on Human Settlements, perhaps the first time that urban issues had been central in global discussions involving governments and international agencies, and had served as head of Canada’s Ministry of State for Urban Affairs.

Inclusion of “The Urban Challenge” in the book set a precedent for many other, subsequent reports, such as those from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which also included chapters on urban issues.3 Perhaps a drawback of WCED’s model is that such reports still discuss urban issues in a discrete chapter rather than integrating them into discussions of economic and environmental change—but that they are discussed at all is significant. The agenda at the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002, for example, notably did not address urban issues.

Much of “The Urban Challenge” focuses on development concerns, especially the poverty concentrated in urban centers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean. The chapter’s main environmental focus was on the environmental health problems in these urban centers—including those associated with very poor-quality housing; the lack of reliable drinking water, sanitation, and drainage; and the lack of pollution control. It recognized the ways in which urban-based enterprises and wealthier urban households displace environmental burdens to other people and other ecosystems, both in the present and the future—but these were given less attention than they would receive today. Although global warming was a concern in the mid-1980s and discussed in Our Common Future, the importance of an urban agenda to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build adaptive capacities for climate change, especially in low- and middle-income nations, was not.

The chapter is broken into three main sections: the first on the growth of cities and how it has played out in low-, middle- and high-income nations, the second with a particular focus on the urban challenge in low- and middle-income countries, and the third on possible solutions through international cooperation. Looking at the chapter using this framework, how well did it capture today’s world? What critical pieces were missing?

The Growth of Cities

With its first sentence, “The Urban Challenge” predicted that by 2000, almost half the world’s population would live in urban centers. This proved correct, even though many nations were less urbanized in 2000 than had been expected, largely because economic stagnation slowed, or on occasion stopped, rural to urban migration.4 The first section of the chapter dubbed the twentieth century the “century of the urban revolution,” noting the large number of cities whose population had multiplied manyfold between 1950 and 1980. Today, with census data covering the whole period from 1950 to 2000, this is even more apparent in the long list of major cities whose population expanded more than tenfold over these 50 years. Indeed, many cities’ populations expanded more than twentyfold. The last column in Table 9.1 (the chapter’s first table) predicted the likely level of urbanization and the number of urban dwellers for each of the world’s regions by 2000 and proved pretty accurate. It slightly overstated the level of urbanization in 2000 for Africa, largely because there was less rural to urban migration than expected.5 It understated Asia’s urban population and level of urbanization—largely because the speed with which China urbanized was unexpected. In the mid-1980s, as Our Common Future was being written, the new post-Mao priority for economic growth in China and support for foreign investment was clear, but the extent to which China would sustain very rapid economic growth throughout the 1980s and 1990s was not. Total urban populations for Africa and Latin America for 2000 were slightly overstated, again in part because of less rural to urban migration but also, for many nations, due to a more rapid decrease in fertility than had been expected.

Cities that had grown very rapidly between 1950 and 1980 appear listed in the chapter’s Table 9.2 alongside UN projections for their populations for 2000, although the text discussing this table notes that many experts had doubted megacities would grow as large as the projections suggested. Indeed, many of these population projections—such as those for Mexico City, São Paulo, Cairo, Bogotá, Nairobi, and Dar es Salaam—proved to be too high.

Although its overall demographic projections proved largely correct, “The Urban Challenge” missed two important issues in relation to urban growth. First, it did not note the more decentralized patterns of urban development in many nations as certain smaller cities successfully attract new investment away from the largest city. For instance, in Mexico, cities close to the U.S. border grew in size and considerably increased their economic importance. In Brazil’s southeast, a range of smaller cities attracted a great deal of new investment away from the largest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In India, a new generation of very large cities, including Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, and Surat have come to challenge the economic dominance of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), Mumbai (formerly Bombay), and Chennai (formerly Madras), the key colonial ports that, along with Delhi, the capital, dominated the Indian urban system throughout the twentieth century. In China, too, a large number of cities that were unfamiliar to non-specialists grew to challenge the dominance of Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou (formerly Canton), including Shenzhen, which grew from a small town to a major metropolis with more than 6 million inhabitants in 40 years.

Second, the chapter did not note the development of large city regions in which cities are separate physically and institutionally but closely interconnected economically. For instance, Mexico City proved to have a much smaller population in its metropolitan area in 2000 than had been anticipated—but there had been rapid growth in the population of cities and smaller urban centers close by, with the emergence of what can be termed the megalopolis of Central Mexico with Mexico City at its center.6 Many other major cities are within clusters of other cities and smaller centers beyond their metropolitan boundaries. China has several such clusters—for instance, the Pearl River Delta urban cluster that includes Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, which, if considered as a single metropolitan area, would be among the world’s largest cities.7 Others include the Beijing greater metropolitan area, a cluster that encompasses Tianjin and Tangshan, and the Yangtze River Delta, which centers on Shanghai.8 This is also a pattern evident in several European nations.9 Some of these city clusters cross national boundaries; for instance, the Tijuana-San Diego cluster sprawls over the Mexican-U.S. border, and the Singapore-Johore-Riau cluster crosses the political boundaries of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.10

So in many nations with larger and more successful economies, there was a decentralization of urban population away from the largest city or cities but still a growing concentration of urban population in core regions that included these cities.11

The Crisis in “Third World” Cities

In its overview of the problems facing cities in low- and middle-income countries (which at that time were often referred to as “the Third World”), “The Urban Challenge” notes how few city governments

have the power, resources, and trained staff to provide their rapidly growing populations with the land, services, and facilities needed for an adequate human life: clean water, sanitation, schools, and transport. The result is mushrooming illegal settlements with primitive facilities, increased overcrowding, and rampant disease linked to an unhealthy environment.12

Sadly, this statement remains as true today as in 1987. Following this is a likewise still-relevant quote from Jorge E. Hardoy, the Argentine urban specialist who advised WCED:

Third World cities are and they will increasingly become centres for competition for a plot to be invaded where you can build a shelter, for a room to rent, for a bed in a hospital, for a seat in a school or in a bus, essentially for the fewer stable adequately paid jobs, even for the space in a square or on a sidewalk where you can display and sell your merchandise, on which so many households depend.13

In addition, the list of diseases associated with poor quality living environments and inadequate infrastructure has not changed much from what the chapter reported. Since 1987, increasing numbers of studies have shown the very large environmental health burden faced by low-income urban dwellers.14

One of the key factors that contributed to the continued relevance of “The Urban Challenge” was its reliance on certain pathbreaking publications from the early 1980s. Perhaps the most important and influential was The State of India’s Environment: A Citizen’s Report, produced by the Centre for Science and Environment in India founded by Anil Agarwal.15 This was important for at least three reasons: the care and detail of the documentation, the methods employed to prepare it (involving a large network of individuals and institutions from all over India) and the inclusion of urban environmental problems (which much of the environmental literature at this time ignored). This set a precedent for nations’ “state of the environment” reports that has been since often imitated by other groups in Africa and Asia.

The section on cities in low- and middle-income nations closes by noting the environmental implications of cities’ uncontrolled physical expansion, which so often manifests as sprawl. This continues to be an issue, much discussed.16 The chapter notes how, in the absence of any effective land-use plan or other means to guide and control new developments, cities expand haphazardly, creating a patchwork of different developments, including businesses and high-density residential settlements, interspersed with land that remains undeveloped and held by its owners in anticipation of speculative gain. Among the consequences are the segregation of low-income groups in the worst-located and often most dangerous areas (for instance, sites subject to flooding or landslides). This haphazard expansion also greatly increases the cost of providing basic infrastructure—roads, piped water, and wastewater removal systems.

The Situation in “Industrial World Cities”

In addition to its focus on challenges in cities in low- and middle-income nations, “The Urban Challenge” also recognizes the importance for sustainable development globally of what transpires in cities in high-income nations. The terminology used may be a little dated; it is not appropriate to refer to the high-income nations as the “industrial world” since most have less reliance on industry for their economy and employment structures than many “non-industrialized” nations. But it notes that cities in high-income nations

account for a high share of the world’s resource use, energy consumption, and environmental pollution. Many have a global reach and draw their resources and energy from distant lands, with enormous aggregate impacts on the ecosystems of those lands.17

The tools and methods for measuring these kinds of impacts had yet to be elaborated, including what is perhaps the best-known method, the calculation of cities’ ecological footprints on “distant elsewheres” that University of British Columbia professor William E. Rees was to pioneer in the early 1990s.18 This in turn helped stimulate far more attention to the ecological impacts of what we consume (for instance, the calculation of food miles) and what we do (for instance, how our personal carbon budget is influenced by the greenhouse gas emissions that result from flying and reliance on private automobiles). The role that city governments in high-income nations will have to take in supporting very substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions was not noted.

At the end of this section, “The Urban Challenge” notes the serious problems evident in many cities in high-income nations—for instance, inner-city decay—but also remarks that these do not exist because of a lack of resources. The chapter underscores the importance of citizen pressures in addressing these issues and, more generally, in improving conditions in urban areas. In the years leading up to the report, such pressures had triggered the abandonment of massive urban development projects, fostered residential schemes of a more human scale, countered indiscriminate demolition of existing buildings and historic districts, modified urban highway construction, and led to transformation of derelict plots into playgrounds.19 This tension between citizen pressure and city development plans remains. It should be noted, too, however, that one component that is clearer today is the phenomenon of wealthier citizens blocking low-cost housing or waste treatment plants in their neighborhoods.20

The Urban Challenge in Developing Countries

After laying out important issues associated with urban growth, the chapter discusses in its second section how to tackle the problems in low- and middle-income countries. The key message from this section is the importance of well-governed cities for more successful economies and for addressing environmental problems. This remains entirely appropriate today.

National Urban Strategies

The idea of nations developing national urban strategies was more in vogue in the mid-1980s than it is today. But the text in “The Urban Challenge” does not support what was a common theme during the 1980s—the suggestion that population movements to urban areas should be discouraged or even controlled. It notes that rapid urbanization was generally a response to the fact that most new investments and jobs are in urban areas. Urban problems arose not because of people’s migration to urban areas but because of the inadequacies in the responses of governments. City authorities were not permitted the power, resources, and structures to address the needs of their rapidly growing populations. It also underscored the importance of complementary rural and urban development strategies—a theme that was to receive more attention during the late 1980s and 1990s.21

The chapter’s discussion of national urban strategies is not for grand spatial plans about where urban development should or should not take place but for a consideration of how current government policies and structures influence the social and spatial distribution of development. It notes the extent to which macroeconomic and sectoral policies may be underpinning many urban problems—for instance, reinforcing the concentration of new enterprises in major cities without any provision to strengthen the capacity of these cities’ governments to manage rapid growth. It observes that strengthening local governments in smaller urban centers and improving infrastructure can lead to more decentralized patterns of urban development. In effect, it recognizes the drivers of increasing social and spatial inequity but perhaps less explicitly than would be emphasized today. The very large and often growing levels of income inequality within nations now receives more attention.22

Strengthening Local Authorities

After outlining national-scale urban strategies, “The Urban Challenge” turns to emphasizing the need for more effective city governments and for more support directly to citizens and community organ-izations to build and manage their own homes and neighborhoods. On city governments, it notes the lack of attention to revising outdated and inappropriate institutional and legal structures; for much of Africa and Asia, these are related to colonial structures that were designed for predominantly rural and agricultural societies and often included apartheid-like controls on the rights of people to live or work in urban centers. The chapter sums up its advice for bolstering local authorities:

To become key agents of development, city governments need enhanced political, institutional, and financial capacity, notably access to more of the wealth generated in the city. Only in this way can cities adapt and deploy some of the vast array of tools available to address urban problems—tools such as land title registration, land use control, and tax sharing.23

These comments remain relevant today. The last 20 years have brought considerable evidence of the benefits of decentralization and stronger, more democratic city governments. Today, far more cities have elected mayors and city councils than was the case 20 years ago—perhaps especially in Latin America, with many nations returning to democratic governments. Many of the examples of “good local governance” are a combination of innovative elected mayors and city councils and organized citizen groups. In some nations, key legal and institutional changes have supported this—for instance, the constitutional changes in Brazil, Colombia, and India.24 Perhaps Brazil has gone furthest in changing the institutional and legal structure to support more competent and accountable city and municipal governments.25 Participatory budgeting that gives more power to citizens to set priorities and makes government expenditures far more transparent was pioneered in Brazil and has become a model widely used in Latin America—and in some other nations too.26 Many of the innovative city governments also gave more attention to key environmental issues than their predecessors—mainly in terms of improving city environments. Some of what was done had larger consequences—for instance, innovations in public transport pioneered by the city of Curitiba in southern Brazil also kept down private car use and thus greenhouse gas emissions.27 In many cities, much improved infrastructure in poorer city districts increased their resilience to extreme weather events. Our Common Future had importance for generating the momentum for international discussions that led to the UN Earth Summit in 1992 and to its Agenda 21; within this, “local agenda 21” had particular importance as it made clear the key role of local governments in sustainable development such that some cities developed innovative “local agenda 21s” during the 1990s.28

Self Reliance and Citizen Involvement

Moving to an even smaller scale, “The Urban Challenge” also addresses the needs and responsibilities of citizens. According to this section, most house building and maintenance in cities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the mid-1980s were done outside official plans and usually in illegal settlements. The chapter stresses the need for governments to recognize the importance of this process for city development and to support it: “Providing tenure to those living in illegal settlements is basic to this process, as is easing some building and housing regulations.”29 Large-scale bulldozing of squatter settlements was rarer in the mid-1980s, the chapter reports, but sadly, the fall in such evictions in the early 1980s, in large part a result of stronger local democracies, was not sustained. Large-scale evictions for those living in informal settlements or “in the way” of city redevelopment and infrastructure are common throughout the world, even in cities with elected governments. In large part, they have been spurred by city governments seeking to attract foreign investment and redevelop central city neighborhoods.30 City mayors and senior civil servants dream of emulating Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Dubai. Today, as in the mid-1980s, they do not see the key role of “the poor” in their city’s economy and construction of housing—indeed, they see them as constraints to city development.

This section on individuals and small groups stresses the importance of neighborhood associations set up by poorer groups that often fill the gap in public service provision. It gives the example of a city government in Hyderabad, India, that had set up a municipal corporation to work directly with residents’ associations and nongovernmental organizations in poorer neighborhoods. In this, very considerable progress has been achieved in the last 20 years, as there are many more examples of citizen groups being able to organize, make demands, and undertake their own programs. Elected local governments have been important—but more for what they permit (and do not suppress) than for what they initiate. In a growing number of countries, federations formed by squatters, slum dwellers, or homeless people have demonstrated new ways to develop urban programs that are transforming the lives of thousands of their member households. The foundation of these federations are small savings groups, mostly formed and managed by women. These savings groups and the larger federations of which they are members also develop their own capacity to implement slum upgrading or to build homes in new urban neighborhoods. They have done so at unit costs that are far lower than those of government or international agency programs.31 Many of these urban poor federations have developed successful partnerships with supportive local governments, such as in India, Thailand, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, Malawi, and the Philippines.32 In Mumbai and Pune, hundreds of low-income neighborhoods have designed and constructed their own community toilets, and they are of higher quality and are much better managed than were the previous, government-managed toilets—for the same cost.33 In several cities in South Africa, many settlements developed by the South African Federation of the Urban Poor have better-quality housing than official low-cost housing programs yet cost no more. Such federations of the urban poor are active in 15 nations and are emerging in several more.34 They have even formed their own international umbrella organization to increase their capacity to change the policies of international agencies and to allow them to learn directly from each other, as the well-established federations support the development of new federations.35

Housing and Services for the Poor

The chapter recommends setting up financial systems to provide support directly to neighborhood organizations formed by low-income households. There are now more examples of such systems in place—for instance, in the increasing number of international funding agencies that provide financial support directly to the federations of slum dwellers or urban poor groups. This represents a major change as international support does not go to governments or even to local nongovernmental organizations but directly to the savings groups homeless women and men have formed to support their efforts to build their own homes. There have also been many innovations in other areas identified by this chapter as priorities for government, such as providing legal tenure to those living in illegal settlements, supplying existing and new housing areas with infrastructure and services, and changing housing finance systems to make cheap loans available to lower-income households and community groups. There are also some examples of governments responding to another recommendation—changing building and planning codes and standards in ways that reduce the cost of a legal housing plot with major benefits for low-income households.36

However, there are far fewer examples today of other measures suggested in “The Urban Challenge,” especially ensuring the land and other resources people need to build or improve their homes are available and planning and guiding cities’ physical expansion to protect agricultural land and ensure land is available for housing, parks, and children’s play areas. Moreover, the chapter describes how large sections of low-income groups in most cities rely on rental accommodation and underscores the need for innovation in improving the quality and expanding the supply of such accommodation—and there is not much evidence of governments acting on this, although the importance of rental accommodation for large sections of the low-income population is now better appreciated.37

Tapping More Resources

Before moving to its concluding section, “The Urban Challenge” makes a point to emphasize the need for all cities to make better use of their own resources. It notes how most cities have well-located land that remains undeveloped and how many public agencies have land that could be put to better use, including land owned by railway and port authorities. It also points to the importance of urban agriculture for food production, as well as for supporting livelihoods:

Urban agriculture can also provide fresher and cheaper produce, more green space, the clearing of garbage dumps and recycling of household waste.38

Over the last 20 years, the recognition of the importance of urban agriculture has certainly increased.39

Calling attention to the inadequacies in most cities in solid waste collection and management, the chapter suggests that if municipal government lacks the resources for regular household waste collection, it can support community-based schemes. It points out how common it is for cities to have thousands of people making a living sorting through waste and the importance of working with them. Certainly, over the last 20 years, there are many more examples of city governments following these approaches, although the regularity of solid waste collection remains very inadequate for much of the urban population in Africa and Asia.

International Cooperation
“The Urban Challenge” ends with a discussion of what changes are needed internationally—but its focus is more on how international cooperation must change than on what sums are needed.

Cooperation among Developing Countries

The first point stressed is the need for cooperation between cities:

Although the management problems confronting Caracas, Dakar, or Delhi have little relevance to those confronting London or Paris, the cities of Latin America, West Africa or South Asia have much in common. . . . [I]t is important that they share experiences on the management of their growing megacities, on the development of small and intermediate centres, on strengthening local government, on upgrading illegal settlements, on crisis-response measures.40

Some international measures have been taken in this regard—for instance, the World Bank and the UN Human Settlements Programme set up the Cities Alliance in 1999 specifically to address urban concerns.

International Support

In the mid-1980s, a low priority was given by most international development assistance agencies to urban areas. For most agencies, this has not changed—although the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency was unusual in having a clear urban program with a strong poverty-reduction focus from the mid-1990s onward. The chapter stresses the need for more funding to city governments for infrastructure and support for local reforms that strengthen local government capacity, such as in reorganizing local tax assessments and preparing or updating land registration. “The Urban Challenge” also stresses the need for increased aid to community groups, using intermediaries such as national or international nongovernmental organizations. This remains relevant today, perhaps even more so than in 1987, as most official aid agencies and development banks have reduced their capacity to engage with and support local governments and local civil society groups.41 In 1987, as today, there was a recognition that far more development assistance should support local development processes driven by local governments and community organ-izations, but there has been little progress in changing the international funding architecture to do so. The chapter notes the need for more support to independent research groups working in housing and urban issues, particularly those providing advice to local governments and community groups; again, there are more examples of this42 and some examples of international funding agencies supporting this43 but not many.

What Received Inadequate Attention

When viewed with hindsight, “The Urban Challenge” is strongest on the first part of the sustainable development agenda: the priority to meet human needs. It recognizes that this should be done “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs,” but this second aspect gets less attention. From an environmental perspective, the chapter includes a strong focus on improving environmental health and better resource use and waste management; also on protecting agricultural land and open space around cities. From a development perspective, it prioritizes meeting human needs among urban populations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. These now represent three quarters of the world’s total urban population. Most of the growth in the world’s population over the next 20 years is likely to be in these regions’ urban areas.44

The urban chapter does not discuss what became one of the most controversial aspects of Our Common Future from other chapters—the suggestion that poverty is a major cause of environmental degradation. The validity of this point was certainly questioned subsequently, since urban and rural poverty is strongly associated with very low levels of resource use and waste generation, including greenhouse gas emissions.45 It is high consumption lifestyles associated with high incomes that drive ecologically unsustainable development, not poverty. But in the mid-1980s, many people assumed that rural poverty was a major cause of deforestation and soil erosion, even though this is difficult to conceive because most rural poverty is the result of people having little or no access to agricultural land and forests. Perhaps rural poverty causes environmental degradation only in the very limited amount of land or forest to which the poor have access—but various detailed studies since the mid-1980s have shown that this too is often incorrect.46 In urban areas, there is a very strong association between poverty and very poor environmental conditions (including very serious environmental health problems) and not between poverty and environmental degradation.

But “The Urban Challenge” gives too little attention to the ways in which environmental burdens are transferred across space (including national boundaries) and time (including to future generations), especially from wealthier cities and their wealthier inhabitants. This is mentioned, but not elaborated on, in the chapter.47 The 1990s would bring a very considerable expansion in the literature on sustainable development and cities.48 The chapter does not consider the likely impacts of global warming on urban centers; global warming was known to be a problem in 1987, but its likely implications for cities had not been studied at that time. According to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published in 2007, urban areas concentrate a large proportion of those most at risk as lives, property, environmental quality, and future prosperity are threatened by “increasing the risk of storms, flooding, landslides, heat waves, and drought and by overloading water, drainage, and energy supply systems.”49 Many of the cities most at risk are in low-income nations. By not considering this, the chapter neglects what has become one of the most difficult global issues: that most of the people and the nations most at risk from the impact of global warming are those with very low current and historic contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. Here, the transfer of environmental burdens is from the wealthy to the poor.

One important advance during the 1990s was the shift in many agencies concerned with disasters to understanding the extent to which these are “preventable” and with these agencies’ actions shifting from disaster response to reducing risks prior to the storm, flood, or other event that catalyzes the disaster.50 This has obvious relevance to adapting cities to climate change. The chapter does not recognize the extent to which action in and around cities is also central to reducing greenhouse gas emissions—and here the need is greatest in high-income nations, both because these have the highest emissions per person and because without new models from the rich world, it is unlikely that similar models will be implemented elsewhere. But the need for new low-carbon emission models for city development is also pressing for low- and middle-income nations, since how their urban centers expand and develop over the next 20 years will have very large implications for future levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

In reviewing discussions of key urban agendas today as compared to 1987, now the need for far more effective policies on HIV/AIDS rightly gets more attention. The future of many nations’ urban (and rural) populations will be much influenced by the extent of appropriate non-stigmatizing treatment for all those with HIV/AIDS and of effective measures to reduce the transmission of HIV.51 Today, the influence on urban development of globalization and of international migration and remittances receives more attention than it did in the mid-to-late 1980s.

The last 20 years have also produced a more substantive idea of development models that are ecologically sustainable and that deliver a high quality of life for their inhabitants without passing environmental burdens to local ecosystems and “distant elsewheres” and the future. These models now focus on resolving locally the potential contradictions between high living standards and ecological sobriety and strive, in the language of the 1990s, to meet “brown” and “green” agendas. In 1987, these models focused on rural patterns. Now we have far better understanding of how urban areas can do this, based on real cities and real local discussions—for instance Manizales, Porto Alegre, Cape Town, and Goa.52 There are also many examples of more modest visions and actions that move cities in the right direction—for instance, public transport systems that bring large benefits to poorer groups and reduce automobile use and the application of energy efficiency measures to buildings and industrial processes. And, perhaps surprisingly for many environmentalists, the environmental advantages that compact cities can provide for this, with mobility (and access) delinked from high private automobile use and housing quality delinked from high heating and cooling requirements. And where so much of what makes cities centers of art and culture, theatre, dance, literature and music, learning, and fun are also delinked from high material consumption.

David Satterthwaite is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and also on the teaching staff of the Development Planning Unit, University College London. He is editor of the international journal, Environment and Urbanization, and has written or edited various books on urban issues, including Squatter Citizen(with Jorge E. Hardoy), The Earthscan Reader on Sustainable Cities, Environmental Problems in an Urbanizing World(with Jorge E. Hardoy and Diana Mitlin), and Empowering Squatter Citizen, Local Government, Civil Society and Urban Poverty Reduction(with Diana Mitlin), all published by Earthscan. He is an honorary professor at the University of Hull and in 2004 was one of the recipients of the Volvo Environment Prize. He has also been active in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 1997, particularly in regard to the possibilities for and constraints on adaptation for cities in low- and middle-income nations. Satterthwaite may be contacted via e-mail at The author is grateful to the editors and to Gordon McGranahan, whose suggestions have much improved this paper.


1. The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), Our Common Future (Oxford, U.K., and New York, NY: Oxford University Press).
2. B. Ward and R. Dubos, Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet (London: Andre Deutsch, 1972), 304. The introduction to this book written by Barbara Ward states that the “charge to the UN to the [Stockholm] Conference was clearly to define what should be done to maintain the earth as a place suitable for human life not only now but also for future generations” (page 25).
3. See G. McGranahan et al., “Urban Systems,” in R. Hassan, R. Scholes, and N. Ash. eds, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Current State and Trends Volume 1 (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006), 795–825; and M. Scott et al., “Human Settlements, Energy and Industry,” in J. McCarthy, O. F. Canziani, N. A. Leary, D. J. Dokken and K. S. White, eds., Climate Change 2001; Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 381–416. See also T. J. Wilbanks et al., “Chapter 7: Industry, Settlement and Society,” in M. Parry, O. Canziani, J. Palutikof, P. van der Linden and C. Hanson, eds., Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press 2007), 357–90.
4.    D. Satterthwaite, "The Transition to a Predominantly Urban World and Its Underpinnings," Human Settlements Discussion Paper (London: International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), 2007), 91.
5.    D. Potts, “Urban Growth and Urban Economies in Eastern and Southern Africa: Trends and Prospects,” in D. Fahy Bryceson and D. Potts, eds., African Urban Economies: Viability, Vitality or Vitiation? (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006): 67–98; and C. Beauchemin and P. Bocquier, “Migration and Urbanization in Francophone West Africa: An Overview of the Recent Empirical Evidence,” Urban Studies 41, no. 11 (2004): 2245–72.
6.    G. Garza, “The Transformation of the Urban System in Mexico,” in T. Champion and G. Hugo, eds., New Forms of Urbanization: Beyond the Urban-Rural Dichotomy (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2004): 153–70.
7.    See F. Lo and Y. Yeung, “Global Restructuring and Emerging Urban Corridors in Pacific Asia,” in F. Lo and Y. Yeung, eds., Emerging World Cities in Pacific Asia (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 1996), 17–47; and D. K. Y. Chu, “The Hong Kong-Zhujiang Delta and the World City System,” in Lo and Yeung, eds., ibid., pages 465–97.
8.    A. Gar-on Yeh and X. Xu, “Globalization and the Urban System in China,” in Lo and Yeung, eds., ibid., 219–67.
9.    W. Knapp, D. Scherhag, and P. Schmitt, “RhineRuhr: Policentricity at Its Best,” in P. Hall and K. Pain, eds., The Polycentric Metropolis: Learning from Mega-city Regions in Europe (London: Earthscan Publications, 2006), 154–62.
10.    S. Macleod and T. G. McGee, “The Singapore-Johore-Riau Growth Triangle: An Emerging Extended Metropolitan Region,” in Lo and Yeung, eds., note 7 above, pages 417–64.
11.    See, for instance, D. R. Vining Jr., “The Growth of Core Regions in the Third World,” Scientific American 252, no. 4 (April 1986): 42–49; also P. Hall and K. Pain, eds., The Polycentric Metropolis: Learning from Mega-city Regions in Europe (London: Earthscan Publications, 2006), 228.
12.    WCED, note 1 above, page 239.
13.    WCED, note 1 above, page 239.
14.    J. Pryer, “The Impact of Adult Ill-health on Household Income and Nutrition in Khulna, Bangladesh,” Environment and Urbanization 5, no. 2 (1994): 35–49; Africa Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), Population and Health Dynamics in Nairobi’s Informal Settlements (Nairobi: APHRC, 2002), 256; and M. R. Montgomery, R. Stren, B. Cohen, and H. E. Reed, eds., Cities Transformed: Demographic Change and Its Implications in the Developing World (Washington, DC: The National Academy Press, 2003), 518.
15.    Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), The State of India’s Environment 1982: A Citizen’s Report (Delhi: CSE, 1982).
16.    H. Frumkin, L. Frank, and R. Jackson, Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Design, Planning and Building for Healthy Communities (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2004), 338.
17.    WCED, note 1 above, page 241.
18.    W. E. Rees, “Ecological Footprints and Appropriated Carrying Capacity,” Environment and Urbanization 4, no. 2 (1992): 121–30.
19.    WCED, note 1 above, page 242.
20.    B. Bryant, ed., Environmental Justice: Issues, Policies, and Solutions (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1995), 278.
21.    C. Tacoli, “The Links Between Urban and Rural Development,” Environment and Urbanization 15, no. 1 (2003): 3–12; and C. Tacoli, ed., The Earthscan Reader in Rural-Urban Linkages (London: Earthscan Publications, 2006), 329.
22. See, for example, Montgomery, Stren, Cohen, and Reed, note 14 above, chapter 5; and R. H. Wade, “The Rising Inequality of World Income Distribution,” Finance and Development 38, no. 4 (2001),
23.    WCED, note 1 above, page 248.
24.    K. C. Sivaramakrishnan, Power to the People? The Politics and Progress of Decentralization (Delhi: Konark Publishers, 2000), 249; and C. Souza, “Participatory Budgeting in Brazilian Cities: Limits and Possibilities in Building Democratic Institutions,” Environment and Urbanization 13, no. 1 (2001): 159–84.
25.    E. Fernandes, “Implementing the Urban Reform Agenda in Brazil,” Environment and Urbanization 19, no. 1 (2007): 177–89.
26.    Y. Cabannes, “Participatory Budgeting: A Significant Contribution to Participatory Democracy,” Environment and Urbanization 16, no. 1 (2004): 27–46.
27.    J. Rabinovitch, “Curitiba: Towards Sustainable Urban Development,” Environment and Urbanization 4, no. 2 (1992): 62–77.
28.    J. E. Hardoy, D. Mitlin, and D. Satterthwaite, Environmental Problems in an Urbanizing World: Finding Solutions for Cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America (London: Earthscan Publications, 2001), 448.
29.    WCED, note 1 above, page 249.
30.    M. Douglass, “From Global Intercity Competition to Cooperation for Livable Cities and Economic Resilience in Pacific Asia,” Environment and Urbanization 14, no. 1 (2002): 53–68; see also reports by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions.
31.    C. d’Cruz and D. Satterthwaite, "Building Homes, Changing Official Approaches: The Work of Urban Poor Federations and Their Contributions to Meeting the Millennium Development Goals in Urban Areas," Poverty Reduction in Urban Areas Series Working Paper 16 (London: IIED, 2005), 80.
32.    For an overview of the work of the federations, see d’Cruz and Satterthwaite, ibid.
33.    S. Burra, S. Patel, and T. Kerr, “Community-Designed, Built and Managed Toilet Blocks in Indian Cities,” Environment and Urbanization 15, no. 2 (2003): 11–32.
34.    d’Cruz and Satterthwaite, note 31 above; and D. Mitlin, "Finance as a Catalyst for Change; Supporting the Grassroots through Urban Poor Funds," Poverty Reduction in Urban Areas Working Paper 17 (London: IIED, 2007).
35.    Slum/Shack Dwellers International; for more details, see
36.    D. Mitlin and A. Muller, “Windhoek, Namibia: Towards Progressive Urban Land Policies in Southern Africa,” International Development Planning Review 26, no. 2 (2004): 167–86.
37.    United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS) (Habitat), Support Measures to Promote Rental Housing for Low Income Groups (Nairobi: UNCHS, 1993), HS/294/93E, 122.
38.    WCED, note 1 above, page 254.
39.    J. Smit, A. Ratta, and J. Nasr, Urban Agriculture: Food, Jobs and Sustainable Cities, Publication Series for Habitat II, Volume One (New York: UNDP, 1996), 302.
40.    WCED, note 1 above, page 255.
41.    D. Satterthwaite, “Meeting the MDGs in Urban Areas: The Forgotten Role of Local Organizations,” Journal of International Affairs 58, no. 2 (2005): 87–112.
42.    A. Hasan, “Orangi Pilot Project: The Expansion of Work Beyond Orangi and the Mapping of Informal Settlements and Infrastructure,” Environment and Urbanization 18, no. 2 (2006): 451–80; and A. Hasan, “The Urban Resource Centre, Karachi,” Environment and Urbanization 19, no. 1 (2007): 275–92.
43.    See, for instance, the work of the Global Urban Research Initiative during the 1990s and the series of books on cities produced by the UN University; see also the Sustainable Cities initiative currently under way, supported by the International Development Research Centre.
44.    United Nations, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision, United Nations Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, CD-ROM Edition—data in digital form (POP/DB/WUP/Rev.2005) (New York: United Nations, 2006).
45.    Hardoy, Mitlin, and Satterthwaite, note 28 above; and D. Satterthwaite, “The Links Between Poverty and the Environment in Urban Areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 590 (2003): 73–92.
46.    G. Leach and R. Mearns, Beyond the Woodfuel Crisis: People, Land and Trees in Africa (London: Earthscan Publications, 1989), 309; and M. Leach and R. Mearns, eds, The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment (Oxford, U.K.: James Currey Publishers, 1996), 240.
47.    See, for instance, G. McGranahan, “An Overview of Urban Environmental Burdens at Three Scales: Intra-urban, Urban-regional, and Global,” International Review for Environmental Strategies 5, no. 2 (2005): 335–36; also P. J. Marcotullio and G. McGranahan, eds., Scaling Urban Environmental Challenges: From Local to Global and Back (London: Earthscan Publications, 2007), 366.
48.    See, for instance, G. Haughton and C. Hunter, Sustainable Cities, Regional Policy and Development series (London: Jessica Kingsley, 1994), 357; D. Satterthwaite, ed., The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Cities (London: Earthscan Publications, 1999), 472; and J. Leitmann, Sustaining Cities: Environmental Planning and Management in Urban Design (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999), 412.
49.    Wilbanks et al., note 3 above, page 40.
50.    A. Maskrey, Disaster Mitigation: A Community Based Approach, Development Guidelines No. 3 (Oxford, U.K.: Oxfam, 1989), 100; and International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), Cities at Risk: Making Cities Safer before Disaster Strikes, (Geneva: IDNDR, 1996), 41.
51.    M. van Donk, “‘Positive’ Urban Futures in Sub-Saharan Africa: HIV/AIDS and the Need for ABC (A Broader Conceptualisation),” Environment and Urbanization 18, no.1 (2006): 155–76; and R. Mabala, “From HIV Prevention to HIV Protection: Addressing the Vulnerability of Girls and Young Women in Urban Areas,” Environment and Urbanization 18, no. 2 (2006): 407–32.
52.    L. S. Velásquez, “The Bioplan: Decreasing Poverty in Manizales, Colombia, through Shared Environmental Management,” in S. Bass, H. Reid, D. Satterthwaite, and P. Steele, eds., Reducing Poverty and Sustaining the Environment (London: Earthscan Publications, 2005): 44–72; R. Menegat (main coordinator), Atlas Ambiental de Porto Alegre (Environmental Atlas of Porto Alegre) (Porto Alegre: Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Prefeitura Municipal de Porto Alegre and Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, 1998), 228; M. Swilling, “Sustainability and Infrastructure Planning in South Africa: A Cape Town Case Study,” Environment and Urbanization 18, no.1 (2006): 23–50; and A. Revi et al., “Goa 2100: The Transition to a Sustainable RUrban Design,” Environment and Urbanization, 18, no. 1 (2006): 51–66.

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