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UN report: Urban sustainability must be a priority

Thursday, June 28, 2007

In 2008, half of the world's entire population will live in cities. That number is expected to keep growing, according to a report from the United Nations Population Fund, and as the world's urban population swells -- to almost 5 billion by 2030 -- so will the population of urban poor.

There is hope in these numbers, the report reminds us, noting that "Cities concentrate poverty, but they also represent poor people's best hope of escaping it."

Just tell that to people -- to the billion people, a sixth of the world's population -- already living in overcrowded, dangerous urban slums without proper sanitation or clean water. The official response to urban growth has generally been to try to curb it rather than work with it, and this UNFPA report makes clear that reacting to the problems of population growth as they arise will no longer suffice. It's time, say the report's authors, for "analysis and pre-emptive action."

"But Amanda," you ask, "if urban slums are already such a big problem, how can we even begin to prepare for the future?"

The answer lies in one of those Big Ideas: sustainable development. The definition that gets the most airplay is a simple one, attributed to the UN: development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Packed into that single sentence are a host of theories and plans -- renewable energy, gender equality, urban land planning, clean water and sanitation initiatives, family planning, and, says the UNFPA, recognizing the rights of the world's urban poor.

Organizations like the Center for Global Development and Citizens for Global Solutions offer a ton of information and ways you can get involved. Thinking of going back to school? SustainUS has a list of academic programs in Sustainable Development. has a clip about Dongtang, which is being developed as the first carbon neutral city. Many US cities already have sustainable development programs -- Portland, Oregon's Office of Sustainable Development must be doing a good job, because SustainLane ranked them #1 on their list of the country's Most Sustainable Cities. How did your city do?

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