Vital Awakening: Cities Key to World Future by Neal Peirce

By Neal Peirce 
© 2009 Washington Post Writers Group
First published 18 October 2009 

 
WASHINGTON -- Last week the sleeping giant opened one eye. He even blinked the other.
 
For decades, the United States government has been shortchanging its own urban poverty pockets and taxing and spending in ways that encourage sprawl development. Even more, it’s ignored the plight of developing world cities and their exploding slum populations.
 
But a newly awakened American government was on display in Washington on October 5. The Obama administration reaffirmed its strong interest in the welfare of U.S. cities, especially more compact and sustainable communities. And it went a step further, offering a warm welcome to United Nations World Habitat Day -- the first time, since its inception in 1986, the event been hosted in the United States. 
 
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan was the official host. From the White House came such officials as Valerie Jarrett, close adviser to the president, and Melody Barnes, chair of the Domestic Policy Council. Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, appeared. So did top State Department officials Anne Marie Slaughter and Esther Brimmer, along with officials of the Environmental Protection Agency and others. Their constant theme: cities matter -- seriously, at home and globally.
 
American diplomacy has had an historic, exclusive focus on nation states.   No longer, said Slaughter: “We see cities as a problem for our diplomats,” especially in a world of rampant slum growth, restless youth populations and threatening climate change.
 
So what’s turned official Washington around? First, clearly, it’s Obama.  As Donovan noted, the president “worked on the Southside of Chicago as a community organizer and walked the dirt paths of the Kibera slum of Nairobi as a Senator.”
 
But U.S. civil society has helped set the stage. The Rockefeller Foundation has opened a series of urban initiatives, domestic and foreign, pushed by its president, Judith Rodin. The Brookings Institution has pressed for progressive steps through its Metropolitan Policy Program (“a do tank within a think tank,” notes Rockefeller’s vice president, Darren Walker). Habitat for Humanity has targeted developing world cities’ land tenure issues. More non-profits, including the Washington-based International Housing Coalition, are focusing U.S. urban interests outward.
 
U.S. cities themselves helped start the transition -- While the federal government slept, for example, they became concerned about global climate change. At latest count over 1,000 have signed onto the “Kyoto challenge, promising to meet the greenhouse gas emission goals that Congress never agreed to.
 
An agenda focused on world cities will face hurdles. Just as our own cities labored for decades under a negative image of urban riots and abandonment, developing world cities can easily be defined by their dilemmas of overwhelming population growth. The resulting slums, said UN Habitat executive director Anna Tibaijuka at the Washington sessions, “are the worst manifestation of urban poverty, deprivation, and exclusion in the modern world.”
 
Her point, underscored by others on World Habitat Day, is that cities are too central to the human future to be ignored. Cities simultaneously generate 70 percent of the world’s economic output and 80 percent of greenhouse gases. The United States’ own sustainability issues, ranging from antiquated infrastructure to deficient transportation systems to deficits of decent housing for the poor, are reflected in cities worldwide. Failing cities spell a meaner, more dangerous world.
 
This suggests that U.S. foreign aid programmes should shift their major focus from rural areas, overwhelmingly favoured in our dollars up to now, to cities -- to help with slum upgrading, safe water for all, and advancing women’s rights. USAID took a major step in that direction last week in announcing a new $1 billion, five-year programme for clean water, electricity and other basic needs of the poor in the world’s 1,000 poor test cities.
 
Worldwide urbanisation isn’t the evil-- it’s the solution, William Cobbett, director of nonprofit Cities Alliance, insisted. Compared to rural life, cities are beacons of hope, the chance of productive employment for the masses. As the World Bank notes, no nation has ever achieved middle class status without urbanisation.
 
That means nations -- and American foreign aid programmes -- should actively assist, not fight, the tide of humanity flowing into the cities. But it should be shaped first and foremost to help people. There is often a problem of inefficient or corrupt local governments. U.S. aid should be consciously channeled to cities that are willing to respect the rights of the poor flowing in, to treat them as citizens, to make legal land tenure easier, to work constructively on housing and slum upgrading. 
 
It’s a mistake, Cobbett argues, to ground our foreign assistance to cities on the basis of fear -- fear of food emergencies, jobless youth and terrorism, for example. The more effective approach, he contends, is positive -- the idea of building sustainable societies, new worlds of opportunity for urban peoples, both on our shores and around the world. 
 
That, indeed, may be our central challenge as the giant of American officialdom wakens to the central role of cities in the struggle for a habitable and peaceful 21st century world. The globe’s conditions present lots to be frightened about. But fear, ultimately, doesn’t motivate. Hope and vision can.

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