Peace, wealth, and health just might be no farther away than the nearest landfill.
"It begins with the garbage problem," San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown says. "We aren't going to solve world peace if we can't figure out what to do with garbage."
How to take out the garbage is exactly what 151 mayors from around the world are discussing this week during a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) conference on governance. In a survey, unemployment, garbage disposal, and housing shortages topped the list of cities' most pressing problems. And most mayors agree: City government must find local solutions to urban problems.
Cities are playing greater roles in the world, and cleaner streets and greener parks are essential for growth. Without good infrastructures, cities risk being left out of the benefits of globalization, say many experts here. "We need to understand globalization as it affects urban centers," says Wally N'Dow, assistant secretary-general of the UN Center for Human Settlement. "If a capital city doesn't work, the country will fail. If [any] city does not work, it will not be party to globalization. Investment will rise up and fly out."
More than half the world's population lives in cities, according to the UN. By 2000, 17 of the 20 largest cities in the world will be in developing countries, compared with seven of 20 in 1950. Most of these cities are in areas threatened by earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters.
"Living conditions in many parts of the world are moving from unacceptable to intolerable," says James Gustave Speth, UNDP program administrator. More than 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day, and the rapid pace of globalization is leaving many people on the margins of society.
"Rural-to-urban migration can't be stopped," says Christopher R.M. Iga, mayor of Kampala, capital of Uganda. "Many villagers came to the cities during the civil wars ... but there was no infrastructure to speak of for them."
Rather than prevent the growth of cities, ways must be found to take advantage of this inevitable trend, Mr. Iga says. Ways must also be found for newcomers to cities to help provide services.
In the West African city of Dakar, Senegal's capital, a program puts young people to work cleaning streets and fighting crime. This, says Mayor Marmadou Diop, not only helps clean Dakar but develops a sense of citizenship among the youths.
In Curitiba, Brazil, the poor can exchange garbage for public-transportation tokens or food.
But there are still many cities where people are left out of the decisionmaking process. Slum management isn't enough, says Mayor Rita Joshi of Allahabad, India. Without women participating, building sustainable cities will remain impossible, she says.
Because mayors around the world share similar problems, they can share solutions. Rather than view the conference as simply another UN talkfest, San Francisco Mayor Brown says Americans should realize that what he and other US mayors learn or teach here will affect their lives.
"If Mexico City can use a program that works in San Francisco, that will mean fewer immigrants coming to the US and less poor we have to take care of," he says.