In June, delegates from around the world will convene in Istanbul for a U.N. conference on housing and urban issues. The agenda will include a variety of problems - from inadequate water supplies to massive traffic jams - that have become evermore pressing as a growing share of the world's population crowds into cities. The event also will mark a crossroads for the United Nations itself - a test of the organization's usefulness at a time when many of its activities face intense criticism.
The meeting, officially called the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, or Habitat II, but better known as the city summit"' is the latest in a series of high-profile international gatherings promoted by U.N. Secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali as a means of "raising the world's consciousness" about international problems.
Controversy has surrounded many of these U.N. meetings. The 1992 Rio de Janeiro conference on environmental issues raised much-disputed alarms about global warming. A 1993 humanrights colloquium in Vienna was overshadowed by conflicts between Western and Asian concepts of rights and a 1994 Cairo conference on population issues was the scene of fierce struggles about abortion and birth control. Last year's Beijing women's summit" was ridiculed by many critics as a forum for radical feminism.
Critics call the conferences elaborate talkathons. All that happens is that bureaucrats of the United Nations and national governments get together to describe problems," says Thomas Sheehy, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "They devise so-called action plans but, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that these bureaucracies are fundamentally incapable of addressing the problems, nothing gets done."
Defenders of Habitat II, however, argue that it marks a crucial departure from previous U.N. confabs by emphasizing practical solutions rather than ideology. "Habitat is very much centered on a kind of problem that is physical and evident, like the lack of housing and the lack of roads"' says Saskia Sassen, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University and author of Cities in a World Economy. "This is the kind of very material stuff where ideology can play a minimal role, as opposed to some other things like population control that are difficult to separate from the values that people have
The city summit also may differ from previous conferences by moving away from the United Nations' traditional reliance on centralized bureaucracies - emphasizing instead the role of local governments, nonprofit organizations and the private sector in grappling with urban problems. Mayors of major cities from Montreal to Dacca, Bangladesh, are scheduled to attend. (The official U.S. delegation is expected to include Henry Cisneros, secretary of housing and urban development, and Gregory Laschutka, mayor of Columbus, Ohio.) A "private-sector forum," replete with a trade show, will be held for real-estate companies, banks and other businesses with an interest in urban issues.
Nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, have been instrumental in setting the meeting's agenda, says Akhtar Badshah, director of programs at the Mega-Cities Project Inc., a New Yorkbased nonprofit group. "This is one of the first conferences where [the United Nations has] actively encouraged corporate and NGO participation," notes Badshah, who will be in Istanbul and has served on a U.S. government committee in charge of conference preparations.
Powerful demographic trends underlie the urban problems that the meeting is aimed to address. Almost half of the world's population lives in cities - a sharp contrast from the early decades of this century, when a vast majority still resided in rural areas. Moreover, U.N. projections indicate that more than two-thirds of humanity will reside in cities by the year 2025. The fastest urban population growth is in Third World countries ill-equipped to handle the resulting demands for housing, infrastructure and services (see sidebar). …