In the message of the Executive Director of Habitat and Secretary-General of the Habitat II Conference, on the occasion of this year's World Habitat Day, all urban dwellers are challenged to examine their own city to see if it measures up to expectations and to explore how the problems of cities can be overcome to make them more equitable, just and sustainable.
Last year's global "City Summit" at Istanbul produced the Habitat Agenda - a plan to make our cities more sustainable, with adequate shelter for all and with a healthy and safe environment. A consensus was reached among Governments on what should be done to achieve this.
The real problem, then and now, is how to implement the Agenda. Resources are scarce in developing countries and also in fully-fledged market economies and in the newly emerging industrial giants. Adequate finance for effective action is hard to mobilize and most cities are finding it nearly impossible to combat the burgeoning problems of air and water pollution, waste disposal, poor housing, environmental health and rapidly expanding numbers of urban poor.
But as we all know, Governments cannot do it alone. At best, Governments can provide the enabling environment for local authorities, municipalities and communities to work together identifying solutions to problems and means of implementing such solutions. A delegation of responsibility and authority to the most appropriate level, with each level freely cooperating and communicating with the others is the ideal. We must strive to include civil society in the struggle for a sustainable future.
But how do we change the existing mind set, where each level of society looks to another to provide either the impetus for action or the finance? Much has been said about subsidiarity and the devolution of responsibilities from central government to cities and regions. Is it really happening? Much is said about the role of individuals and communities in improving their urban environment. Again, do people really feel that they have the possibility of being innovators? Why do they feel powerless in the face of the myriad of obstructions? Will the necessary empowerment take place to enable individuals and communities to control their own destiny?
Fortunately, there are signs that both local authorities and communities are becoming more aware of not only the challenges, but more importantly, the opportunities for change. The rapid growth of the "Local Agenda 21" movement and the expanding number of cities taking part in the global network for urban environment management - the Urban Environment Forum - are striking examples of how these sectors of society are taking charge and are committed to improving their urban environments.
The key to empowerment and effective action is information - practical information on what works to solve specific local environmental problems and information on how other people and communities are succeeding in making a difference in their quality of life.
UNEP continues to support such initiatives through its joint venture with its sister agency, Habitat, on the Sustainable Cities Programme and through its assessment of major environmental problems, development of appropriate environmental management practices and encouragement of binding agreements among Governments.
UNEP knows very well that half of humanity lives in urban areas. We heed the challenge to influence what our future cities will become and we support all activities which will ensure a better quality of life, even in the face of new and emerging threats to the human environment.
World Habitat Day is an occasion to reflect and to resolve how each individual, acting alone or in concert with the political and economic structures of societies can make a difference in creating healthier, productive and sustainable cities. UNEP will continue to do its best to encourage the more effective management of the urban environment for the good of all people and for the future of life on Earth."
Message by the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and United Nations Under- Secretary-General, Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell
For more information:
Patricia L. Jacobs,
tel: (254 2) 62 3088,
fax: 62 3692,
UNEP News Release 1997/59