Past, present and future perspectives
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Primary school children, Ghana

Ron Gilling /Still Pictures


Throughout history, urbanization has been associated with economic and social progress, the promotion of literacy and education, the improvement of the general state of health, greater access to social services, and cultural, political and religious participation. When properly planned and managed, urban areas are capable of promoting human development, whilst effectively managing the extent of their impact on the natural environment.

However, population growth and rural-to-urban migrations have increased steadily, particularly in developing countries, placing enormous pressures on urban infrastructure and services, both in terms of provision and maintenance. The most serious problems confronting cities and towns and their inhabitants include inadequate financial resources, and planning skills and capacities. Coupled with the rapid growth in demand for shelter and services, as well as rising consumption, this has culminated in many social and environmental problems. These factors strain governments and local authorities' budgets, and their capacities to achieve the goals of sustainable development. Responses urgently required include the eradication of rural poverty and improvement of the quality of living conditions, as well as creation of employment and educational opportunities in rural settlements, regional centres and secondary cities (United Nations Conference on Human Settlements 1996). Additional resources need to be committed to environmental protection and management at the national and international levels, to ensure a sustained supply of fertile and stable soils, good quality water, healthy fresh air, medicinal and nutritional products, and space for recreation.

Improved planning and design of settlements is required to make use of existing sites, thereby containing urban sprawl and limiting the extent of encroachment on natural habitat or agricultural land. Efforts should also be made to encourage the use of recycled or sustainably produced building materials, and innovations are required in building design to reduce environmental impact (e.g. through improved energy-efficiency). Environmental Impact Assessments need to be better integrated with urban planning and management, so that environmental impacts are monitored and managed continuously and within a context of holistic development.

In addition to this, improvements to infrastructure provision and maintenance are a priority for most African countries, although this is not exclusively an urban issue. A significant proportion of the burden of disease in Africa could be alleviated through improvements in water supply and sanitation, waste disposal, education, and community-based, preventive healthcare. Reducing air pollution in urban centres by regulating the industrial and transport sectors, as well as reducing domestic air pollution through improved access to electricity and ventilation would also make significant inroads in reducing the disease burden in Africa.

'Recognizing the global nature of these issues, the international community, in convening Habitat II, has decided that a concerted global approach could greatly enhance progress towards achieving these goals. Unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, particularly in industrialized countries, environmental degradation, demographic changes, widespread and persistent poverty, and social and economic inequality can have local, cross-national and global impacts. The sooner communities, local governments and partnerships among the public, private and community sectors join efforts to create comprehensive, bold and innovative strategies for shelter and human settlements, the better the prospects will be for the safety, health and well-being of people and the brighter the outlook for solutions to global environment and social problems.' (United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, 1996).