Past, present and future perspectives

Towards sustainable urban settlements

The two most influential movements over the last 30 years for improving conditions in urban settlements have been the creation of the United Nations Commission for Human Settlements (Habitat) (UNCHS) and Local Agenda 21.

Habitat was established in October 1978 to provide leadership and coordination for the activities of the United Nations in the field of human settlements. Habitat's mission is to promote socially and environmentally sustainable development of human settlements and the achievement of adequate shelter for all. The Habitat Agenda was adopted as the global plan of action for achieving this mission at the Habitat II Conference, held in Istanbul, Turkey, in June 1996. In the lead up to the Conference, African Ministers responsible for housing and urban development met in Kampala, Uganda. They recognized the need for urbanization in relation to economic development, but stressed the need to improve rural facilities and rural-urban linkages to slow the rate of urbanization. They also endorsed the decisions of the Dakar Declaration to involve stakeholders, build capacity in urban authorities, establish enhanced urban environmental management, and develop and implement national environmental action plans.

The other framework for action, the Local Agenda 21 programme, is expressly called for in Agenda 21 (Chapter 28) which encourages local authorities to enter into dialogue and to develop a process that is specifically designed to help achieve sustainable development at the local level, in the same way as Agenda 21 promotes this at the national and global level.

Box 2g.1 African best practices in urban development

African cities have been setting standards internationally for their progress in achieving sustainable growth and improving living conditions. The 1998 Global 100 Best Practices List, drawn up by the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements to recognise various elements of urban development, contained eight African projects, and two award winning projects, one from Angola and one from Sudan. These best practices encompassed environmental management, children and youth centres, infrastructure development, sustainable community design and architecture, and poverty eradication.

Source: UNCHS 2000

Although implementation of the Habitat Agenda and of Agenda 21 has been constrained, largely by lack of funding, many African cities have made remarkable achievements (see Box 2g.1). These include the revision or formulation of constitutions and national legislation to promote the right to adequate shelter-almost 80 per cent of African countries now legally recognize this right (UNCHS 2001b). Thirteen out of 29 African countries recently studied recognize women's rights to own property, and more are revising or developing policies to this effect (UNCHS 2001b). Environmental policies are also being overhauled, and many African countries now require environmental impact assessments to be conducted prior to new developments such as housing, commercial development or road construction. Integrated water policies and waste management strategies are being developed, and municipal services are also being privatized in many urban centres, in an effort to improve coverage and maintenance. Effluent standards and tighter controls on waste management are also being developed and implemented to encourage responsible waste disposal. Housing programmes, subsidies for low-income families, poverty alleviation programmes, and decentralization strategies are additional measures being used to relieve the social, economic, and environmental burden currently concentrated on urban areas.

In 1995, officials from concerned African cities met and formed the African Sustainable Cities Network (ASCN), to build capacity in participatory environmental planning within local authorities. The members started the process with an environmental management needs assessment, followed by a phased programme of education and training, establishing a framework for implementing new national environmental policies, and creating local sustainable development strategies. By June 2000, 31 African cities had joined the network and had embarked on activities (ICLEI 2001).