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Reducing Poverty and Greening Mega-Cities
Alex Steffen, 29 Oct 03

Half the people on the planet now live in cities. The trends point to a world which is overwhelmingly urban by the year 2020. Many cities in the developing world - like Jakarta, Mumbai, Mexico City, Lagos and Sao Paolo - can expect millions more residents in the next twenty years.

Much rests on the fate of these cities. Recent migration has left many of the people who live there precariously perched on the edge on disaster. Housing, where it can be found at all, often takes the shape of shacks in shantytowns and squatters settlements. Basic services like water, power and sewage are often unavailable, and nearly always unaffordable. Hunger is a problem, and preventable disease often runs rampant. Unemployment often contributes to crime, drug abuse and prostitution. By many social measurements, many of these burgeoning mega-cities are disasters.

This sort of poverty, of course, dances in tandem with environmental destruction. The poor are forced onto fragile hillsides. The hillsides wash out, destroying both vegetation and people's homes. The poor have no sewers, so garbage, sewage and polluted rainwater run through the streets, making people sick and polluting local rivers. Etc. No solution which treats only poverty or only environmental concerns can succeed in places like these.

This is the niche into which steps the Mega-Cities Project's excellent report The Poverty / Environment Nexus in Mega-Cities. It's an orbital view of innovative programs that have worked to both green cities and lift people out of poverty. The people in these stories created mircoenterprises, learned to read, organized politically and created schools, housing and community gardens while checking erosion, reducing waste, planting trees and building sanitation systems. It's not beach reading, wallowing as it does at times in jargon and academic language, but the stories it has to tell are inspiring stuff.


"Economies, and societies, are increasingly segmented, between the
'cosmopolitans' and the 'locals,' between the included and the excluded in the
making of the new history. This is a more fundamental duality than the old
distinction between the rich and the poor. What has changed is that a significant
proportion of the population of the planet is shifting from being exploited in their
work to a position of structural irrelevance. ... [T]he Third World as such has
disappeared, following the disintegration of the Second World. What we have
now is a First World, made up of the dynamic, interconnected segments of the
global economy, and a Fourth World, made up of the countries, regions, cities,
and segments of population that are irrelevant, thus dispensable, in all regions of the world, in varying proportions of each country's population."

--Manuel Castells, from the introduction


"Every “First World” city has in it a “Third World” city of infant mortality,
malnutrition, unemployment, communicable diseases and homelessness.
Similarly, every “Third World” city has in it a “First World” city with high finance,
fashion, and technology. In this light, megacities have more in common with
each other than with towns and villages within their own countries, and would
benefit from sharing urban solutions."



The most fertile context for innovation was found in those cities and
neighborhoods experiencing the most severe urban problems.

The most successful innovations were derived from rigorous analysis of the
current situation, past failures, and successful initiatives implemented elsewhere.

Sustainable innovations depend on direct community participation.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), acting in the space between the
market and the state, were an essential ingredient for every success, whether
serving as initiators, brokers, implementators, or all three.

Most innovations are driven by a charismatic leader or “product champion,” who
is tenaciously dedicated to implementing the new idea.

The most powerful innovations are those which span several policy areas and
types of innovations.

Conflicts need to be resolved between the need to show rapid results and the
slow, sometimes tedious consultative process needed for transparency and a
sense of ownership.

The role of women was critical for success.

Take aways:

Urban environmental, social, and economic sustainability is essential for global sustainability. Concentrating human populations in cities is an environmental necessity to create economies of scale and resource efficiencies. Dense populations leave open space for either agriculture or natural wilderness areas. Creating circular systems that recycle water and waste of these concentrated populations is the key to reversing our global environmental deterioration

Alleviating urban poverty is essential to ensuring urban environmental regeneration. The urban poor tend to occupy the most ecologically fragile and service-deprived areas of our cities. Without alternative locations to settle and sufficient income to cook and keep warm, their survival will increasingly be pitted against environmental needs.

A strong civil society and grassroots initiatives are essential for lasting solutions to poverty and environmental degradation. The most creative and resource-efficient solutions to urban problems tend to emerge at the grassroots level, closest to the problems being solved. Without local participation, even the best ideas are doomed to failure.

To reach scale, it is essential to transform "micro" solutions into "macro" impact. While small may be beautiful, it's still small.

Urban transformation cannot take place without changing the old incentive systems and "rules of the game." Local innovations can never achieve scale without cross-sectoral partnerships involving government, business, NGOs, academia, media, and grassroots groups. We need to create a climate conducive to experimentation, mutual learning, and collaboration.

The sustainable city of the 21st Century must have social justice, political participation, economic vitality, and ecological regeneration. Only with all these social elements in place can our cities be truly sustainable for the 21st Century and beyond.

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This group has an interesting website about a campaign to raise awareness of global poverty, by taking part in the $2 a day challenge

Posted by: Daniel on 3 May 04



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