Understanding Issues

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Extracted from: DANIDA Workshop Papers: Improving the Urban Environment and Reducing Poverty; December 5, 2000; Copenhagen, Denmark.

Why is there so much attention on improving the urban environment?

Urban environmental issues are receiving more attention in the international development arena for several reasons:

  • The world is urbanizing, and will continue to do so.
  • The number of poor people living in urban areas has been underestimated in the past and is growing rapidly.
  • This poverty is exacerbated by environmental threats that account for a large share of ill-health, early deaths and hardship particularly in low-income cities and neighborhoods.
  • Urban consumption and production patterns contribute much to global and regional environmental burdens.
  • Some of the worst sites of ecological distress are found in and around cities.
  • Better urban environmental management is possible, while preventing urbanization is rarely either possible or even desirable.

In short, it would seem that helping cities to address their environmental problems can meet both poverty and sustainability goals, thereby contributing to sustainable development.

This justification for giving a greater priority to urban environmental improvement assumes a relatively broad definition of urban environmental problems and a balanced strategy for addressing them. It depends on addressing a wide range of environmental problems. An emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions will not reduce poverty, since global warming does not, at least as yet, contribute to a significant share of poverty and ill-health in low-income cities. An emphasis on healthier sanitation in low-income neighbourhoods, on the other hand, will not reduce regional and global environmental burdens, since bad sanitation affects mainly people living in the vicinity. And neither will it do much to address the worst sites of ecological distress which, typically, involve industrial pollution of air and waterways. 

Caracas, Venezuela.
Urbanization is a key component in environmental issues.

What are key urban environmental problems?

Problems can be defined in different ways, as well as their operational implications, especially for development assistance. Often, very broad definitions are used to justify assistance for addressing urban environmental issues, while most internationally sponsored urban environment initiatives conform to a far narrower definition. The following anthropocentric definition is proposed as a workable compromise:

Threats to present or future human well-being,
resulting from human-induced damage to the physical environment,
originating in or borne in urban areas.

There is little coherence in how international agencies and others define the urban environment and identify its critical problems. (See: Defining urban environmental problems). However, several factors skew the operational definition of environment away from many of the central environmental concerns of the urban poor. (See: The urban environment in international development assistance). A summary table shows the range of city-related environmental hazards by scale and type. (See: Summary Table).

Who suffers? Identifying the vulnerable groups.

Low-income residents tend to be among the most vulnerable to exposure, the most susceptible when they are exposed, and the least able to cope with the consequences. Certain sub-groups are especially at risk, including children, women and some occupational groups.

Generally low-income groups in cities suffer the most in terms of ill-health, injury and premature death caused by environmental hazards. They are the least able to afford accommodation that protects them from environmental risks – that is, good quality housing in neighbourhoods with piped water and adequate provision for sanitation, garbage collection and drains – and have the least resources to cope with illness or injury when they occur. Also, they generally have the least political power to demand that these problems be addressed. For instance:

  • Their houses and neighborhoods are the worst served with water, sanitation, garbage collection, paved roads and drains. This can be seen in the scale of the differentials between wealthy and poor areas in environmental hazards, in access to public services and in health indicators. Infant or child mortality rates in poorer areas of cities are often four or more times those in richer areas, with much larger differentials apparent if the poorest district is located near low-income settlements.
  • It is generally poorer groups who live in the places where the pollution levels are worst; they often choose to live in such places as these are the only locations where they can find affordable land for their housing, close to sources of employment. There is also the tendency for polluting industries, waste dumps and waste management facilities to concentrate in low-income neighborhoods.
  • It is generally poorer groups who suffer most from floods, landslides or other disasters because housing and land markets price them out of the safe, well-located areas. Thus, they occupy the most hazardous sites, often not planned for residential settlement, and with little investment in either infrastructure to mitigate the impact or in disaster preparedness to limit the health and other impacts when disasters occur.
  • Low-wage jobs often expose workers to a range of environmental hazards that threaten their health and well-being. Thus, street vendors are exposed to high levels of vehicular pollution, waste pickers are exposed to hazardous materials, and cramped and crowded working conditions can create a wide range of environmental risks.

Four issues are explored further: vulnerability and susceptibility; vulnerability to disasters; reducing vulnerability; and strengthening asset bases

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