Summit Lists 'Greatest Hits' That Solve Urban Problems

The chief innovation to come out of the United Nations "city summit" in Istanbul, which ends today, may be a kind of "greatest hits" list of urban planning.

This "best practices" list "is a very fine way of coming at the problem of making cities more livable," says conference delegate Peter Kimm, a 30-year veteran of the United States Agency for International Development.

The Best Practices Database launched here is funded by a charitable foundation and will be available on the World Wide Web (http://www.bestpractices.org/) and on paper for those without a computer or access to the Internet.

Someone in India, for example, could scroll through information on methods of flood prevention in Europe or South America and read in detail how the projects were funded and executed.

Then, according to Robin Lane, who developed the software, "You have an address you can contact, fax numbers, phone numbers, even e-mail addresses, and the names of the people involved in the project. So you can pick up the phone and ask them: 'How did this part work?' "

What are some of these "best practices?" In Tilburg, The Netherlands, the government has been redesigned as if it were a business. A management system measures "profits" in terms of levels of transparency and accountability. Citizens are asked to assess the quality of housing, traffic, safety, and the environment. Budgets are allocated on the basis of this consultation.

Chattanooga, Tenn., has transformed itself from one of America's most polluted areas into a model of "sustainable development." Thousands of people were consulted from government, business, and the community. The result has been cleaner air, better housing, safer streets, less racial tension, and a planned "zero emissions industrial park."

The businessman's association in Alexandria, Egypt, has developed a small-enterprise and micro-enterprise project. It provides training and technical courses to both men and women as well as credit. Wages and productivity in the city have risen.

Along with the focus on best practices, many at the conference hope the conference will be remembered for marking a major shift in the UN's overall approach to global problems.

This is the first UN conference ever to invite local authorities, community groups, nongovernmental organizations, and private companies to contribute directly to the deliberations, along with the usual government officials.

"It was a logical development, and I think it was revolutionary," says Beate Weber, mayor of Heidelberg, Germany.

"The UN is finally realizing, thank goodness, that civil society is the body that actually comes up with the ideas," says Adow Khosa, a delegate here and a member of Nigeria's National Council of Women's Societies.

"We want to pull the UN away from implementing, and act as a facilitator," says Susan Thomson, who shepherded the Best Practices Database project for the UN agency that oversaw this gathering, known formally as Habitat II, the UN Conference on Human Settlements.

"If we can set up a roster of experts, people involved in best practices," she says, "then we can pull out the $15,000-a-month UN experts and put experienced local people in instead."

The irony of such a database is that it could make such UN gatherings obsolete - a pleasing prospect for cost-cutters perhaps, but anathema to UN boosters such as its Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. "These conferences [are] crucial for the determination of the future of life on this planet!" he declared, veering toward hyperbole at the start of the two-week gathering.

Indeed, here at the last of the big UN conferences of the late 20th century - which have addressed topics from the environment and population to women's rights - the UN seems to have adopted a permanently defensive tone.

Near the end of this gathering of some 12,000 diplomats, bureaucrats, and journalists, the UN press office issued a list of the seven recent UN conferences and their costs with the headline: "Good Value for the Money."

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