The City, Environment and Culture

By Mayor Zaragoza, Federico | UNESCO Courier, May 1996 | Go to article overview

The City, Environment and Culture


Mayor Zaragoza, Federico, UNESCO Courier


At the dawn of the twenty-first century urban living poses a major challenge to which effective, and above all timely, responses must be found. No treatment can work unless a diagnosis is made in good time.

It is true that we produce studies, analyses and reports on the critical situation in cities and the damage inflicted on the environment and on citizens, but we have a moral obligation to deal with these problems by taking preventive action. This "time ethic" is important if action is to be effective. Any clinical analyst knows that a diagnosis should be good without aspiring to be perfect, for only an autopsy can provide the perfect diagnosis, and by then it is too late. The same applies to the environment. Since any process is potentially irreversible, we must have the courage to act, however unpopular that action might be, while treatment is still possible.

If current demographic forecasts turn out to be correct, by the year 2000 one human being out of every two will be living in a city. By 2035, three thousand million more people will be living in the urban settlements that exist today. These forecasts may not materialize if we succeed in containing population growth. We cannot tell the 250,000 newcomers that our planet welcomes each day that there is no room for them and that we do not want them. So how can we slow down population growth?

Education - especially the education of women in urban and rural environments - is the key factor. Education can, independently of ideological or religious belief, help to reduce fertility rates rapidly by something like 50 to 60 per cent.

In December 1993, at a meeting held under the auspices of UNESCO, UNICEF and the United Nations, the world's nine most populous countries (the home of 72 per cent of the world's illiterates and 56 per cent of world population) agreed that only education could enable every woman and every man to control their own destinies. Some of these countries, including India, have already decided to increase the percentage of their gross domestic product set aside for education. This kind of measure could restrain population growth while ensuring respect for individual freedom.

Megacities under fire

It is also necessary to improve the quality of life, above all in rural areas. This is the only way to prevent migration from these areas to the outskirts of big cities and even to other countries seen as more prosperous. To this end we must mobilize solidarity between and within nations in order to distribute resources more evenly. If we can boost education - doubling investment in it - and at the same time improve the quality of life, we shall succeed in containing population growth.

If we fail to do this, we shall have to build a thousand cities of three million inhabitants in the next forty years, twenty-five a year. These figures starkly demonstrate the extreme magnitude of the urban phenomenon.

Cities, which have generated such vital concepts and practices as civic virtues, urbanity, civilization, politics and democracy, which were once a wellspring of community solidarity, have for many people become synonymous with disorder, chaos and radical upheaval, with violence, pollution, insecurity, the breakdown of social cohesion, wastage and delinquency. Cities, it is said, are machines for manufacturing poverty and social inequality. …

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