PCDForum Article #18 Release Date June 1, 1996
by Dr. Rashmi Mayur
It is estimated that by the year 2050 three out of four people in the world will
be living in urban agglomerations-up from one out of two presently. Between now
and then the world’s human population is projected to grow from the current 5.7
billion to 10.5 billion. The urban infrastructure of many of the world’s largest
cities is already stretched to or beyond the breaking point and the pressures
continue to mount. By all accounts we are headed for collective disaster.
According to Dr. Wally N’Dow, the Secretary General of the UN Habitat Summit
II to be held in Istanbul, Turkey 2-14 June 1996, the goal of the summit is to
engage policy makers, planners, city administrators, and citizens everywhere in
building sustainable habitats for the future. It is an important and timely
goal. The crisis of the world’s cities and towns is deepening so rapidly that
this conference may be our last opportunity to build global consensus on
necessary corrective actions before the damage becomes irreversible.
Almost 1.2 billion of the world’s people live in wretched environmental,
social and economic conditions without home or shelter-at the edge of survival.
At the present rate of deterioration, another 200 million people will join their
numbers by the year 2001-an indicator of the accelerating disintegration and
collapse of urban civilization.
The most dramatic examples of spreading urban pathology are found in the
megacities of the South-such as Bombay, Mexico City, Bangkok, Lagos, and Sao
Paulo-where crushing congestion, poisonous pollution, the nightmare of traffic
jams, proliferating slums, rising crime rates, poverty, disease and death are
endemic. In Northern cities rising crime rates, alienation, pervasive drug
addiction and alcoholism, shattered families, and suicides suggest similar urban
Whereas the populations of the largest cities in the West have been
stabilized, in India, as in the other countries of the South, megacities and
large metropolises are on a runaway population growth path. With approximately
70 percent of its 945 million people still living in villages, India remains an
agricultural country by international reckoning. Yet it also has 280 million
city dwellers, the largest number of urbanites of any country in the world. The
populations of Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta have doubled in the last 25 years.
Migration from rural to urban centers continues unabated.
With 15 million people, Bombay is the largest megacity of India, one of the
15 megacities of the world, and one of India’s worst urban disasters. Two out of
three people live in slums. At peak times roads are burdened with three times
more traffic than their designed capacity. Air pollution chokes the people
during the climatic inversion experienced during the winter months. And 80
percent of the city’s sewage is discharged raw into the sea. The situation
continues to worsen in every major city of India, as it does in the major cities
of other Asian countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Sri
Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia, where one out of three urban inhabitants lives in
By and large, the urban conditions of the majority of people in the cities
of Africa and Latin America are as mercilessly cruel as in India and Asia-the
only difference being the magnitude and the level of poverty. The urban
civilization, which was to fulfill the dreams of the millions for ease and
material abundance, has become a nightmarish curse.
What is our vision of the kinds of cities, towns, and villages in which we
want to live? How do we create human settlements that function as
self-sustaining eco-habitats? For many millennia human beings lived in harmony
with nature in well-integrated cultures. Even today, the millions of people
living in the 600,000 villages of India, several hundred thousand villages of
China and tribal communities of Africa and South America live modest, yet
fulfilling and sustainable lives. But the pressures of modernization are driving
millions out of such communities and into the wretched cities and megacities.
We must use the Habitat II Summit as a forum to rethink our vision of the
proper role and function of human habitats and reconstruct our institutions
accordingly. The concept of the eco-village as a place for sustainable and
joyful living should be a centerpiece of any Habitat II vision for the 21st
century. The new vision must give high priority to stabilizing global population
size and limiting rural-urban migration, decentralizing governance, investing in
low-cost indigenous technologies to meet basic human needs in harmony with the
environment, establishing universal literacy, and achieving true cooperation
between peoples everywhere to create good and satisfying lives for all. We will
as well need to free the world from the institutions of exploitation that
support the gluttonous consumption of the world’s scarce resources by the few at
the expense of the many.
Our vision must embrace the many possibilities available to us. We can treat
the sewage and compost the garbage from our cities and towns to provide
fertilizer for urban agriculture. We can retrofit our settlements and transport
systems to function on renewable energy sources such as bio, solar, and wind
energy. We can enable people to create low-cost ecologically sound housing
programs. We can use information technologies to reduce commuting, enhance
education, and linkage societies and cultures around the planet. We can replace
dehumanizing shopping centers with people’s markets. We can produce and use
fully recyclable products. We can adapt our lifestyles to principles of
conservation and sufficiency rather than consumption and excess. We can preserve
our humanity and the integrity of the richly diverse cultures of human societies
by ending the obscene cultural homogenization of the world through the spread of
Western commercialism. Let our settlements be known as centers of art and
culture, music and dance, knowledge and creativity, love and joy.
For millions in the South a simple decent place on earth to live with their
families in a community is all they want. It is within our means to create
societies that realize this dream for all 5.7 billion people in the world while
maintaining a healthy and vibrant ecosystem. We must make the realization of
this dream our driving commitment for Habitat II-a commitment to creating a
futuristic vision based on values of sufficiency and simplicity where the earth
and the sky dance to the symphony of children’s smiles.
Dr. Rashmi Mayur, is Director of the International Institute for Sustainable
Future, 734 Mittal Tower Mariman Point, Bombay, India, Phone (91-22) 204-5758
Fax (91-22) 287-1250; and Special Advisor to the Secretary General, United
Nations Habitat II Summit. This column was prepared by the PCDForum based on
materials provided by Dr. Mayur.
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