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'Earth Summit' for '92: the cities 'want in.' (urban emphasis needed)

Cities of the world are telegraphing a strong message to organizers of "Earth Summet," the United Nations' big Comference on the Environment and Development to be held next June in Rio de Janeiro.

Cities want the 166 national delegations to Rio, many led by presidents and prime ministers, to recognize that with out healthy cities, the entire globe may get very sick. They want cities high on the conference agenda, right up there with global warming, deforestation, desertification, the loss of animal and plant species.

It's not just that so many metropolises are plagued by a deteriorating environment, faulty infrastructure, urban spraw and tragic housing--and are badly in need of more national government assistance.

It's that the world's population, in search of economic opportunity, is choosing cities to live in. By 2000, 25 cities will have mega-populations of 10 million or more people (the vast majority of them in South America and Asia). For the first time in the history of mankind urban areas will have the majority of the world's population.

"If you think humanity is overwhelming the world, cities are where it's happening the fastest." says Montreal Mayor Jean Dore.

Less than 60 percent of the world's urban population has access to adequate sanitation. Cascading traffic flows make cities a prime generator of the carbon monoxide emissions that trigger the feared global "greenhouse effect."

The urgent message that Earth Summit needs to get serious about cities came out of the meeting of 22 mayors of the world's major cities in Montreal last month. Anew International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, with headquarters in Toronto, is now working on an agenda to be put to the Rio conference.

The World Bank, with a new emphasis on urban infrastructure, transportation, water-supply and solid-waste management, is joining several U.N. agencies in applying pressure to ensure that the Earth Summit has an urban spin.

And Maurice Strong, the hard-charging Canadian businessman/environmentalist who is secretary general of the Rio conference, has taken up the call: "The battle for survival of the planet will be won or lost in the cities....Those who lead the great cities of the world are really the pathfinders of change on our planet."

The conference ought to spotlight, says Montreal's Dore, the intimate interdependence of the world's cities. Cities typically drive national economies. But crippled cities mean crippled world economies.

How can the greenhouse effect be combatted unless cities move aggresively to embrace mass transit and cut back on the mass use of automobiles?

What kind of markets will North America find for its products in the next century if the burgeoning cities of Africa and South America are so convulsed by environmental problems and urban poverty that they have no money to pay for North American exports? New Delhi is responsible for 32 percent of India's gross national product. If its basic systems--transit, roads, sanitation--aren't up to the mark, India's entire economic future is imperiled.

Infrastructure investment in American cities has declined precipitously in the last several decades--and total U.S. productivity gains have plummeted in lockstep with the lack of public investment, says the World Bank.

During the Montreal conference, New York City Mayor David Dinkins had to rush home to deal with the rupture of an 87-year-old water main that ruined a refurbished subway station near Grand Central terminal. New York's massive deferred maintenance symbolizes the time bomb of urban disinvestment.

Founder-director Janice Perlman of the New York City-based "Megacities" project, says that increasingly it is impossible to separate "first-" and "third-world" cities:

"It every 'first-world' city, there is a 'third-world' city of malnutrition, infant mortality, unemployment, homelessness. And in very 'third-world' city, there is a 'first-world' city of high-tech, high-finance and high-fashion."

It would be refreshing, Perlman suggests, if the heads of state meeting in Rio de Janeiro "began to consider poor urban children as much an endangered species as the whooping crame or the giant panda."

Whether the national leaders gathering for the Earth Summit will want to spend time on such glamorous challenges as urban infrastructure, vehicle emissions and grinding poverty, is still a big open question.

George Bush isn't alone among world leaders in a predilection for diplomatic maneuvering, occasional saber-rattling and pronouncements of good economic news just around the corner. Few heads of state find tough local issue their cup of tea.

Image the White House's reaction if the Earth Summit came up with proposed commitments to combat the green-house effect. Friendly staff chief John Sununu would likely rush to smother yet another environmental initiative in its crib. Any notion that urban infrastructure is an important economic issue central governements need to address--that is, spend money on--would likely attract similar treatment.

Still, the Rio conference, with cities and urban survivability getting the same attention as tropical rain forests and endangered species, ought to dramatize our multifaceted and deepening global interdependence.

Millions of people may listen. And that's the stuff hope can be made of.
COPYRIGHT 1991 National League of Cities
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Peirce, Neal R.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Nov 11, 1991
Previous Article:Communities in transition: process for adjustment highlighted at Boston conference.
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