Citizens Team Up to Aid Big Cities

Groups of people in 14 of the world's largest metropolises pool urban-improvement strategies. MEGA-CITIES PROJECT

PEOPLE do like cities. Though often derided as centers of crime, pollution, homelessness, and crumbling infrastructure, cities still rate high as places to live. By United Nations estimates, the majority of citizens, including 60 percent of the world's poor, will be urban dwellers by the year 2000. Many will live in cities of unprecedented size. Twenty-three cities - most of them in developing nations - will have populations of more than 10 million each.

Trying to provide even the most basic services for so many people is a major challenge for city governments. The need is to find creative ways to make large cities work better. That's why Janice Perlman, a political scientist with New York University's Urban Research Center, has been at work for the last few years building a network of citizen teams in 14 of the world's largest cities. The aim is to identify and share innovative ideas that work.

``We know there are lots of failures - what we want to know is what are the success stories in solving these huge urban problems,'' says Dr. Perlman, the network's executive director. ``We're trying to be the voice of the alternative city ... to find approaches that cost less and reach people's needs more efficiently.''

Launched with seed money from a few United States foundations and international assistance groups, this Mega-Cities Project operates on the theory that cities in developing and industrialized nations have much to learn from each other.

``These cities may have different histories and different levels of economic development, but when it comes to garbage or conserving water or building a transportation system to get people to and from work, the problems are very similar,'' Perlman says.

As she sees it, every third-world city has first-world components, such as high technology and high finance at the center, while every first-world city shares many third-world problems, such as poverty and malnutrition.

For many third-world cities, the economic and environmental costs of trying to provide all citizens with traditional services from subways to sewer connections are prohibitive. One answer may be to skip a generation of technology. Rather than trying to replicate the toilets of the industrialized world that use 15 liters (about 4 gallons) of water per flush, for instance, cities in developing nations may do better in terms of cost and water conservation by adopting newer models that use only 1.5 liters of water per flush.

In some cases introducing more cost-effective and creative ideas may require government recognition of and cooperation with the informal economic sector that plays such a prominent role in many third-world cities. In Jakarta, for instance, many street vendors have been able to earn a better living and gain a more permanent location with government loans that let them set up sales stalls in city bazaars.

The initial focus of the Mega-Cities Project teams, which include community, business, and government leaders, has been the environment. Perlman says the thrust is intended partly to counter the negative image of cities as polluters. The emphasis is also meant to coincide with the UN environmental conference to be held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

So far, Mega-Cities teams have identified from 20 to 200 successful innovations in each city. These range from the grand to the simple. Project standards stipulate that each must be economically viable, ecologically sound, socially just, and involve broad community participation.

One ambitious idea now being looked at by New York City, according to Perlman, is Tokyo's Dream Island, an area in the harbor in which garbage is containerized and used as landfill. It is capped by a recreational area that includes beaches and botanical gardens heated by methane gas.

Other ideas up for global consideration include a for-profit recycling center here in the Bronx that buys trash from the public and employs local residents, the Green Belt Movement in Nairobi, Kenya, that involves the massive planting of trees and preservation of park space, and mobil elementary school and day-care-center facilities that follow construction workers to various sites in New Delhi. One simple idea is an antilitter program in Bangkok. Children are urged to help by a cartoon face on litter bins and on TV that suggests, ``Magic eyes are watching you.''

Often it is not clear where a good idea really gets its start. Rio is trying to reduce car congestion and make streets more friendly to pedestrians and bikes by integrating bike paths with public transit and ferry lines. The plan is one of many under consideration by New York City officials looking for ways to comply with the Clean Air Act. Brazilians say they got the idea from London. ``Sometimes these ideas bounce back and forth with value added each time,'' Perlman says.

Most technological and scientific advances of the last century have evolved through the private sector and have largely benefitted consumers and the military establishment, Perlman says. It is the public sector and cities in particular, she says, which badly need this new kind of experimental laboratory network.

``It's by no means easy for cities to learn from each other - there's no natural channel,'' agrees Lisa Peattie, a professor of urban studies and planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. ``They tend to have to reinvent the wheel all the time.''

Perlman says she does not expect many Mega-Cities ideas to be transferred wholesale. More likely, she says, parts of innovations will be plucked and adapted to fit varying needs. Sometimes understanding the techniques used to win public or official support for an idea can be the most important part.

``Often the big secret is not the technology - it's making the idea happen,'' she says.

Analyzing the impact of controversial ideas is part of the lesson. Cities concerned, for instance, that proposals to reduce downtown traffic may adversely affect local businesses can learn much from the cumulative experience of Copenhagen, Buenos Aires, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, with such experiments.

This political aspect is one reason Perlman wanted a representative grass-roots team in each city rather than just a group of city officials. She recruited and trained each team coordinator. All have considerable empathy, she says, for ``bottom-up'' solutions and neighborhood problem-solving.

Perlman travels a good deal but says she spends much of her time fund-raising. She works out of a small townhouse office at New York University that overlooks Washington Square in Manhattan.

Placards listing the names of all 14 cities in the project - Bangkok, Bombay, Buenos Aires, Jakarta, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Moscow, Nairobi, New Delhi, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and Tokyo - circle the walls, flanked by charts and maps.

Beijing, also a member, is currently on hold for political reasons. If funding increases enough, the project would welcome all 23 megacities (see chart on Page 12) as members.

In Perlman's view, cities, which account for the overwhelming share of the gross national product in every nation, deserve far more attention and support than they now get. Many people mistakenly look on cities, she says, as ``parasites'' that eat up most national resources. In fact, she says most development and international assistance organizations have only recently begun to pay any attention at all to cities.

MICHAEL COHEN, who heads the Urban Development Division of the World Bank, agrees. Noting that the World Bank has focused on cities and urban policy per se for less than 20 years, he says the bank still lends only five percent of its annual total, or about $1.5 billion, for urban projects. He says he finds it ``startling'' to realize that - at the moment when many cities are facing ``dramatic'' population increases - urban research around the world is in decline. He says the subject was on the rise in the 1960s but that most urban research centers now have much smaller staffs and more limited agendas.

A major redefinition of how cities ought to work and how services in the 21st century can best be supplied is ``desperately needed,'' says David Ramage, president of the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and a member of the Mega-Cities advisory board. ``We're at a point in terms of the technology of human settlement that we have run out of capacity to deal with it with the kind of instruments that presently exist.''

Perlman says the unprecedented scale of the world's largest cities is such that the concept of providing services from a central base needs to be rethought. ``We're at a level of urban opportunity and crisis that really demands a new approach,'' she says. She clearly hopes that the Mega-Cities Project will provide it.

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