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Cities: Cultural and Environmental Diversity

Speech by Mr. Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme, at the opening ceremony of the World Urban Forum “Cities: crossroads of culture, inclusiveness and integration”, Monday, 13 september 2004, Barcelona, Spain

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1. Cultural and environmental diversity in decline

Cultural and biological diversity are both in decline worldwide. These are major issues for the 21st century.

As many as half the world’s 6,000 languages are threatened with extinction.

Also threatened are 24 per cent of mammals and 12 per cent of bird species—by climate change, land conversion, unsustainable harvesting, pollution, the introduction of exotic species, and many other factors associated with development.

For example, agriculture is often responsible for diversity loss—either through intense farming methods that promote monocultures over huge areas, or by poor management practices that can cause freshwater depletion, land degradation and desertification.

The spread of the urban environment is also affecting environmental diversity—with fields, wetlands and woodlands being replaced by roads, housing estates, parking lots and shopping malls.

2. Cultural diversity for stability and security

The growth of cities is the most significant cultural trend of the last century. And it is perhaps today’s most important development issue.

Currently 75 per cent of people in the developed world live in urban areas. In developing countries the figure is 41 per cent, but that is where urban expansion is now greatest.

In 2025 it is estimated that two-thirds of all people will live in cities.

This mass migration of people also represents a transport of culture.

In an alien environment people often cling strongly to their culture. It contributes to their feeling of stability.

It also exposes people to other cultures—a necessary condition for the tolerance, respect and understanding our world so clearly needs.

So, urbanization does not have to mean cultural loss.

Take New York for example—the home of the United Nations and one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities.

New York has been absorbing immigrants for centuries. Little Italy, Chinatown, Harlem, Queens, Brooklyn. They all have their own identity, their own pockets of culture. That is one of the city’s strengths.

I would therefore argue that the mix of cultures in the world’s great cities is one of the more exciting and positive aspects of our globalizing world.

3. Cities and the global environment

What about cities and environmental diversity?

Throughout the developed world, urban planners have become increasingly aware of how important clean air, green spaces, adequate provision of sanitation and freshwater are to the physical and psychological health of city dwellers, especially the poor.

But a city’s ecological footprint can also spread far beyond its borders, polluting the land and the air, the rivers and the seas.

For example, the majority of the world's carbon dioxide emissions now originate from cities.

Because cities have such major and growing environmental impact at the national, regional and global level, UNEP is working increasingly closely with its partners throughout the UN system, including cities and their representative organizations, to address urban environment and development issues.

Over the next five days delegates here at the World Urban Forum will discuss the many issues related to creating sustainable cities.

I particularly look forward to Wednesday morning’s session on the urban environment, organized with UNEP’s sister agency UN-HABITAT.

4. Environmental diversity for healthy cities

At UNEP we appreciate that well-planned cities can be environmentally friendly—even havens of diversity, both cultural and environmental.

The concept of Green Cities where people can live in a clean and healthy environment is the theme of World Environment Day 2005, which is being hosted by San Francisco, a city strong in both cultural and environmental diversity.

Our message for World Environment Day is that cities need not be either environmental or cultural deserts.

Creating sustainable cities is a particularly important challenge for the developing world, where people are flocking to cities in unprecedented numbers.

These people need an environment that is conducive to healthy productive lives.

Unfortunately, the urban environment they find often condemns them and their children to lives of poverty and ill health.

The cities of the developing world are too often overcrowded and unplanned, with poor sanitation, freshwater and energy services.

Living in Nairobi, this is something that I see daily.

UNEP and UN-HABITAT are the only two UN programmes based in the developing world. We see first-hand the urban challenges these countries face.

Not surprisingly, we are also collaborating to help solve them.

For instance UNEP is working jointly with UN-HABITAT in the Sustainable Cities Programme.

The programme is supporting 50 cities worldwide to improve their environmental planning and management capacity, and has created a global network that is sharing lessons learned with local and national governments.

UNEP also provides access to a variety of urban and freshwater issues through databases and portals developed and maintained by our International Environmental Technology Centre, based in Japan.

We are also spearheading the Nairobi River Basin Project to identify and solve urban environment issues in our home city, which hosts one of Africa’s largest slums and faces a host of public health challenges related to sanitation and freshwater provision.

5. Cities are for people

Many of the answers to urban environmental issues lie with the political will of local and national governments, and with the power of ordinary citizens.

Much of UNEP’s work is focused on building capacity.

UNEP helps governments to develop and implement environmental policy. And it helps to provide the knowledge and information on which to build that policy.

It works closely with the private sector to promote and encourage the transfer of best practices and technological solutions.

It also helps countries to draft and enforce environmental laws—including those that give citizens a strong voice.

And it works with civil society to make sure their voice is heard.

Ultimately, cities are communities of people, culturally diverse, dependent on each other and on a healthy environment for security and happiness.

Only when communities are empowered, when they understand that they can and must take responsibility for their own environment, when they truly feel a sense of ownership and pride, can they learn to look after it.

Thank you.

(c) Miguel González



Further Resources

Forum Barcelona 2004
World Urban Forum

Forum Barcelona 2004

UN-HABITAT's World Urban Forum
Barcelona, Spain,13-17 September 2004


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