Understanding Issues

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Extracted from: DANIDA Workshop Papers: Improving the Urban Environment and Reducing Poverty; December 5, 2000; Copenhagen, Denmark.
Is urban development an environmental blessing or a curse?

Urban environmental problems are often blamed on poverty. Almost as often, urban affluence is viewed as an environmental burden. Meanwhile, middle-income cities are often cited as extreme examples of urban environmental distress. A stylised account of an urban environmental transition that can help explain these superficially contradictory claims in terms of the different environmental burdens typically associated with cities at different levels of affluence.  

An Urban Environment Transition

Implications to urban environmental management

As well as the obvious implication that environmental priorities need to recognize wealth-related differences, there are a number of broader ethical implications:

  • Environmental injustice tends to reinforce economic injustice, with the environmental burdens of poor groups falling primarily on the poor and the environmental burdens of the more affluent falling on an increasingly broad ‘public’. International development assistance should help to correct this injustice.
  • In poor cities, it is appropriate to emphasize local environmental issues of particular concern to the urban poor. Supporting locally driven environmental improvement efforts to address these issues is a suitable role for development assistance.
  • Global interests are critical to environmental management in affluent cities. There is also an international interest in avoiding urban development in any city that adds to global environmental burdens (many of which will fall primarily on future generations). It is debatable, however, whether initiatives to prevent poorer cities from increasing their global burdens qualify as development assistance.
  • An exclusive focus on city-level environmental burdens will tend to omit the most critical concerns of both the urban poor and future generations. Especially in middle-income industrializing cities, however, these may be the priority.


Is urban poverty a cause or consequence of environmental problems?

What are the links between poverty and environmental degradation in urban areas? Can environmental improvement help reduce poverty?

It is often assumed (or stated) that urban poverty is causing or contributing to environmental degradation. However, this is generally not the case, except perhaps in relation to the living environments of the poor themselves.

Urban poverty is very strongly associated with high levels of environmental risk – largely because of poor quality and overcrowded housing and the inadequacies in provision for water, sanitation, drainage, health care and garbage collection. The very large health burdens that arise from these risks are also a major cause or contributor to poverty. The visual image of many low-income settlements with their poor quality housing, open drains and uncollected garbage suggests a ‘degraded’ living environment.

However, urban poverty is not strongly associated with environmental degradation in the sense of overuse of, or damage to, finite natural resource bases or the generation of ecologically damaging or disrupting wastes. It is the consumption patterns of non-poor groups (especially high-income groups) and the largely urban-based production and distribution systems that serve them that are responsible for most such degradation caused by urban populations.



And how much urban poverty is there? The scale and nature of urban poverty has been under-represented in the statistics of governments and international agencies. This is, in part, because income-based poverty lines are not adjusted to take into account the higher income needed to avoid poverty in most cities and, in part, because there are many non-income based aspects of deprivation. Nevertheless, the urban poor represent almost 1/3 of the urban dwellers in low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, representing more than two-thirds of the world’s urban population.


Is the ‘Green Agenda’ appropriate in poor cities? How to reconcile conflicting priorities?

There are often conflicts between proponents of the ‘Green Agenda’ and the ‘Brown Agenda’ over which environmental problems should receive priority. The Green Agenda concentrates on reducing the impact of urban-based production, consumption and waste generation on natural resources and ecosystems and, ultimately, on the world’s life support systems. The Brown Agenda emphasizes the need to reduce the environmental threats to health that arise from poor sanitary conditions, crowding, inadequate water provision, hazardous air and water pollution, and local accumulations of solid waste. Generally, the Brown Agenda is more pressing in poor cities and the Green Agenda is more pressing in affluent cities. Ways need to be sought, however, to ensure a better balance between the two and, more importantly, to make them more complementary.

While there is no clear dividing line between the two agendas, they can be distinguished along a number of different dimensions: spatial, temporal and political. The Brown Agenda addresses issues that are more local, immediate and affect the poor. The Green Agenda addresses issues that are more dispersed, delayed and affect future generations. The Brown Agenda addresses the environmental burdens more typically associated with poverty while the Green Agenda addresses the environmental burdens more typically associated with affluence. Both carry conflicts and complementarities.

For further discussion, see: Environmental quality-from luxury to necessity; Conflicting agendas - helping the poor versus protecting the future; The importance of assisting locally-driven initiatives; Conclusions.

Why do rural-urban linkages matter?

Urban centers are linked to their surrounding regions by relations of interdependence, which have important repercussions on the use and management of resources and on the livelihoods of urban and rural residents. Rural-urban interactions can be divided broadly into two categories:

  • ‘Spatial’ linkages refer to the movement of people, goods, money, information and other social transactions between urban centers and rural areas.
  • ‘Sectorial’ interactions describe the interdependence between agriculture on the one hand and industry and services on the other.

The two categories often overlap – for example, many urban enterprises rely on demand from rural consumers, and access to urban markets is often crucial for agricultural producers. Both types of interaction make it difficult to manage either urban or rural environments independently.

The interdependence may be illustrated by the concept of a city’s ecological footprint, which points to the large land area on whose production the inhabitants and businesses of any city depend for food, water and other renewable resources such as fuelwood, and also for the absorption of carbon to compensate for the carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuel use. The size of a city’s ecological footprint is, typically, several times the area of the city itself. However, it can vary considerably and is influenced by:

  • The city’s wealth and the energy intensity of its production base: while the ecological footprint of major cities in the North can transcend national boundaries, most urban centers in the South draw their resources from close by.
  • The basis on which the city boundary is defined: the ecological footprint’s size as a multiple of the city area depends on whether the administrative boundaries are limited to the intensively built-up area or extended to include the city-region.

The concept of ecological footprint is linked to the idea of carrying-capacity, or the need to balance resource consumption and waste discharge with the preservation of the functional integrity – and therefore of the productivity – of ecosystems.

For further discussion, see also: The implications of administrative definitions; the peri-urban interface; Understanding rural-urban differences and rural-urban linkages; and Governing across and beyond the rural-boundary.