Understanding Issues

What are Key Urban Environmental Problems?

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

Defining urban environmental problems

While there is now widespread agreement that urban environmental issues are important, there is little coherence in how international agencies and others define the urban environment and identify its critical problems. This is not just a semantic question, as it is intimately related to how and where funds are allocated and to who can expect to benefit from the resulting environmental improvements. Most of the confusion arises from the qualifier ‘environmental’ and what it should mean in an urban context.

If urban environmental problems are defined and pursued too broadly, then almost all urban development initiatives can be labeled environmental. For example, Einstein’s oft-cited definition of the environment as ‘everything that is not me’, could be used to designate anything from better shopping facilities to better televisions as urban environmental improvement.

But if urban environmental problems are defined too narrowly, many of the generalizations noted in the introductory paragraph cease to be true. For example, defining urban environmental problems as ‘the degradation of urban water, air and land’ excludes many of the environmental health problems suffered predominantly by the poor, as well as the extra-urban impacts that threaten regional and global sustainability.

While both very broad and very narrow usage are common in the literature, when people complain of ‘environmental problems’ they are typically referring to damage to the physical environment, mostly caused by other people, and usually with harmful consequences for human welfare, either now or in the future. So common sense suggests that urban environmental problems are threats to present or future human well-being, resulting from human-induced damage to the physical environment, originating in or borne in urban areas.

This definition includes:

  • Localized environmental health problems such as inadequate household water and sanitation and indoor air pollution.
  • City-regional environmental problems such as ambient air pollution, inadequate waste management and pollution of rivers, lakes and coastal areas.
  • Extra-urban impacts of urban activities such as ecological disruption and resource depletion in a city’s hinterland, and emissions of acid precursors and greenhouse gases.
  • Regional or global environmental burdens that arise from activities outside a city’s boundaries, but which will affect people living in the city

It does not encompass:

  • Problems in what are sometimes termed the ‘social’, ‘economic’ or ‘cultural’ environment.
  • Natural hazards that are not caused or made worse by urban activity.
  • The environmental impacts of urban activities that are of no concern to humans, either now or in the future.

The table presents a wide range of city-related environmental hazards. Despite their diversity, all fall within the definition, provided the phrase ‘resulting from urban activities’ is itself interpreted broadly. Most are the unintended side-effects of human activity in cities. Some might more accurately be ascribed to a lack of preventive measures. In all examples, however, better urban practices and governance could help reduce the burdens, and it is this distinction that is most critical operationally.

The urban environment in international development assistance

By and large, the definition given above is consistent with the perspective on urban environmental problems taken by most international development agencies (a notable exception being the Dutch government’s DGIS, which explicitly includes the urban social environment as a focal area, alongside the urban physical environment). However, a review of a range of bilateral and multilateral donors suggests that several factors skew the operational definition of environment away from many of the central environmental concerns of the urban poor:

  1. Responsibility for taking the lead on environmental matters is often assigned to divisions that are not directly involved in urban development assistance on the grounds that the environment generally, and natural resources in particular, are primarily rural concerns. Such divisions are unlikely to have the knowledge or influence to promote urban environmental issues. Moreover, they have a tendency to define environment in natural resource management terms, which can easily lead to ignoring the environmental health issues that are of particular concern to the urban poor. National and local environmental agencies in recipient countries, the natural counterparts of environmental staff in development agencies, also tend to define their role as one of ‘protecting’ the environment and to view most of the environmental threats in low-income neighborhoods as beyond their mandate.
  2. Broad definitions are employed to illustrate the importance of environmental issues but narrower definitions are used to construct environmental indicators, while still narrower definitions are typically employed to identify environmental programs and projects. Thus, for example:
    • It is routinely noted that millions of deaths every year from diarrhea and respiratory infections could be prevented by environmental improvements.
    • Statistics on household access to water and sanitation are only sometimes included in lists of environmental indicators.
    • The projects that target such improvements are generally infrastructure projects and are labeled as such (i.e. they are rarely part of a donor agency’s ‘environment’ portfolio).

    This can easily give the impression that environmental initiatives are responding to a far broader set of environmental concerns than they actually are, while at the same time ignoring environmental benefits that can come from ‘non-environmental’ initiatives. 
  3. Operationally, a distinction is often made between two different approaches to environmental improvement: investing in ‘stand-alone’ environmental initiatives and attempting to ‘mainstream’ environmental concerns into all development activities. It is generally held that ‘mainstreaming’ is ultimately more important. However, at least in its early stages, mainstreaming tends to define the environmental agenda in terms of reducing the environmental impacts of development in both urban and rural areas. Thus, in the urban context, the cross-cutting environmental goal is often expressed in terms of ‘protecting’ the environment or ‘preventing’ the degradation of urban water, land and air. Again, this can easily detract from the local environmental threats that are of particular concern to the urban poor.
  4. Pressure from Northern environmentalists has been an important factor in convincing international development agencies to address environmental issues. Northern environmentalists are usually more concerned with regional and global issues involving the natural environment than with local environmental health burdens faced by the urban poor. Again, this reinforces a tendency to ignore the environmental threats facing the urban poor although it does put pressure on development agencies to address global environmental issues.

As international and local interest and capacity to address urban environmental problems increases, new, more locally-driven environmental strategies are also emerging. Many cities in Europe and America, and increasingly in Latin America, Asia and Africa are experimenting with city-wide initiatives to address environmental problems. Bilateral and even more often multilateral donors have been supporting a number of these initiatives, often called Local Agenda 21s. There is still much to learn from these local initiatives, including perhaps how best to define urban environmental problems in their local context. Ultimately, while it may be useful to define urban environmental problems in the abstract, operationally it may be more important to respond to local initiatives in a coherent fashion, whether or not they fit some abstract definition.


SUMMARY: Range of city-related environmental hazards by scale and type
(This list of examples is not intended to be comprehensive)
Within house and its plot Biological pathogens Water-borne, water-washed (or water-scarce), airborne, food-borne, vector-borne, including some water-related vectors (e.g. Aedes mosquitoes breeding in water containers where households lack reliable piped supplied).
Chemical pollutants Indoor air pollution from fires, stoves or heaters. Accidental poisoning from household chemicals. Occupational exposure for home workers.
Physical hazards Household accidents – burns and scalds, cuts, falls. Physical hazards from home-based economic activities. Inadequate protection from rain, extreme temperatures.
Neighborhood Biological pathogens Pathogens in waste water, solid waste (if not removed from the site), local water bodies. Disease vectors, e.g. malaria-spreading Anopheles mosquitoes breeding in standing water or filariasis-spreading Culex mosquitoes breeding in blocked drains, latrines or septic tanks.
Chemical pollutants Ambient air pollution from fires, stoves....; also perhaps from burning garbage if there is no regular garbage collection service. Air and water pollution and wastes from ‘cottage’ industries and from motor vehicles.
Physical hazards Site-related hazards, e.g. housing on slopes with risks of landslides; sites regularly flooded, sites at risk from earthquakes.
Workplace Biological pathogens Overcrowding/poor ventilation aids transmission of infectious diseases.
Chemical pollutants Toxic chemicals, dust......
Physical hazards Dangerous machinery, noise.....
City (or municipality within larger city) Biological pathogens Pathogens in the open water bodies (often from sewerage); also at municipal dumps; contaminated water in piped system.
Chemical pollutants Ambient air pollution (mostly from industry and motor vehicles; motor vehicles’ role generally growing); water pollution; hazardous wastes.
Physical hazards Traffic hazards. Violence. 'Natural' disasters and their 'unnaturally large' impact because of inadequate attention to prevention and mitigation.
Citizens’ access to land for housing Important influence on housing quality directly and indirectly (e.g. through insecure tenure discouraging households investing in improved housing, and discouraging water, electricity and other utilities from serving them).
Heat island effect and thermal inversions Raised temperatures a health risk, especially for vulnerable groups (e.g. elderly, very young). Air pollutants may become trapped, increasing their concentration and the length of people’s exposure to them.
City-region (or city periphery) Resource degradation Soil erosion from poor watershed management or land development or clearance; deforestation; water pollution; ecological damage from acid precipitation and ozone plumes; loss of biodiversity.
Land or water pollution from waste dumping Pollution of land from dumping of conventional household, industrial and commercial solid wastes and toxic/hazardous wastes. Leaching of toxic chemicals from waste dumps into water. Contaminated industrial sites. Pollution of surface water and groundwater from sewage and surface runoff.
Pre-emption or loss of resources Fresh water for city pre-empting its use for agriculture; expansion of paved area over good quality agricultural land.
Links between city and global issues Non-renewable resource use Fossil fuel use; use of other mineral resources; loss of biodiversity; loss of non-renewable resources in urban waste streams.
Non-renewable sink use Persistent chemicals in urban waste streams; greenhouse gas emissions, stratospheric ozone depleting chemicals.
Overuse of 'finite' renewable Resources Scale of consumption that is incompatible with global limits for soil, forests, freshwater....
SOURCE: Satterthwaite, David (1999), The Links between Poverty and the Environment in Urban Areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the European Commission (EC), New York.