UN Tries New Tack At Summit on Cities

Ramshackle housing spreads for miles in concentric circles around the minarets of this ancient city, evidence of a flood of migrants arriving in recent years from the countryside.

The migratory pull of the world's great cities - and how to manage their growth gracefully - has brought 20,000 diplomats, politicians, aid workers, and journalists to Istanbul for a United Nations summit that begins today.

The Habitat II conference reflects the realization that much was wrong with the doomsday scenarios predicted at the first Habitat conference in Vancouver in 1976. Back then, the air was thick with Malthusian predictions that polluted, congested megacities would engulf the world.

Megacities indeed have proliferated - 18 cities now have populations of more than 10 million people - but growth rates also have dropped. "This obsession that if a city grows rapidly it's necessarily bad is just crazy," says David Satterthwaite, who helped organize the first Habitat conference. "So was the methodology. They just took one decade and extrapolated as if nothing would change."

People still flocking to cities

That doesn't mean the picture for the world's cities today is rosy, however. The June 3 to 14 Habitat II, whose subtitle is the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, will echo with grim statistics about the plight of city dwellers who lack adequate housing and water.

The conference is designed to be an enormous talkfest where participants trade ideas and experiences. Nearly half of the world's people - 2.6 billion out of 5.8 billion - live in urban areas; the UN predicts that by 2025 two-thirds will be city dwellers. Most of this rapid urbanization is expected to happen in poor countries.

"What is happening in our cities is nothing less than one of the greatest threats to international peace and security...," says conference Secretary-General Wally N'Dow. "The job of Habitat II is to defuse this threat."

Unlike the series of lavish UN conferences that have preceded it - such as the environment summit in Rio, the population conference in Beijing, and the social summit in Copenhagen - Habitat II has received a relatively paltry $1.8 million from the UN. It is the last big UN conference of this century. The organizers sought funding elsewhere and managed to raise an additional $28 million from foundations, aid groups, and private companies.

"The fact that the UN didn't give lots of money to this conference clearly fed the ingenuity of the organizers," says Mr. Satterthwaite, director of the Human Settlements Program at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London.

"The UN has to get away from being an organization of nation states," says Sir Crispin Tickell, former British ambassador to the UN. "The citizens of the world should have a place in the only real international forum there is. This conference in Turkey holds out real hope of that."

"It's a major shift," agrees a diplomat in Istanbul. "People are realizing that national governments can't do everything and that many urban problems are suitable for commercial involvement." Adds another diplomat: "People are saying it's one conference too many, and attendance is less than expected. But the ideas really are exciting."

World database of 'best practices'

The UN agency behind Habitat II, the Conference on Human Settlements, already is offering one new idea: The creation of a computer database of "best practices" by cities worldwide on problems from sewage treatment to preventing graffiti.

Says Jacques Jobim, director of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities: "I just hope the UN doesn't use the presence of those of us in local government as a justification for saying, 'We've consulted, and now we'll do our own thing.' Local authorities really feel welcome here. I just hope this spirit of partnership is for real."

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