Large cities (those with a population of more than one million people) continue to grow rapidly throughout the world. The UN estimates that over 500 urban areas will have a population of more than a million by the year 2015, compared to 328 such cities in 1996. Over the same period the number of cities with a population of more than five million is projected to increase from 16 to 26.
Cities are the engines of development; they absorb two thirds of all population growth, offer economies of scale in the provision of shelter, jobs and services and are the centres of productivity. Environmental degradation obstructs the cities' contribution to development, by threatening economic efficiency, social equity and sustainability of hard won development achievements. Environmental degradation is not caused by a lack of technology or a lack of capital, but rather by limited management capacities - ineffective governance.
Especially in the case of major cities, sustainable urban development requires improved understanding of the functioning and subsequent locally appropriate development of urban infrastructure. This infrastructure consists of two parts: one is the infrastructure supporting urban "metabolism" (energy, water, sanitation, solid waste); the other is the infrastructure supporting the mobility of people, goods and information, that is, public transportation systems, roads and communications. In developing countries, many cities, in particular major cities, are on the verge of collapse. Such cities are believed to be above critical size for their current infrastructure. This requires that new socio-technological development strategies be brought to bear upon their problems.
The Sustainable Cities Programme (SCP) is a vehicle for implementing Agenda 21 at the city level. It is a joint programme of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which deals with the urban environment - uncollected garbage and filth, poor drainage and impassable roads, unsafe water supply and inadequate infrastructure, polluted rivers and fouled air, reduced living standards and increased costs, loss of productivity and slowed socio-economic development. The SCP builds capacities in environmental planning and management at the local level in cities around the world, developing and using a type of technical cooperation which has become a model for UN operations.
The SCP has tripled its budget during the last three years while much of the UN has suffered through financial crisis. An annual budget of close to 10 million dollars is carefully used to develop abilities among local governments and their partners in the public, private and community sectors to deal with urban environmental problems. It is used for city demonstrations, local project staff, consultants, volunteers, equipment and meeting costs and for leveraging funding from other sources. This strategy is so successful that less than 1 percent of programme funding comes from directly Habitat or UNEP; the rest is mobilized at the city level and globally from multilateral funding institutions and interested donor countries.
The orientation and thrust of Sustainable Cities Programme activities is largely determined by its partner cities, within the over-arching UN framework of implementing Agenda 21 at the local level, and the environment dimensions of the Habitat Agenda. Several thousand professionals are directly and regularly associated with the programme in over 40 cities and 30 partner organizations around the world. The core team in Nairobi supports city demonstrations and replications, captures lessons of experience, prepares tools for urban environmental planning and management, facilitates exchanges and responds to city requests on an ongoing basis.
In the set of principles in the [Urban Agenda 21], those preparing for the Istanbul -- Habitat II Conference of 1996 worked on concepts of development that articulate economic growth with social equity and quality of life; sustainability of urban development based on the protection and enhancement of both natural and human resources; partnerships as the basis of good governance; and civic spirit as a fundamental tool to achieve the main aim of urban solidarity. Workshops of the conference dealt with issues such as making a living in the city, moving around, the metabolism and the alternative shapes of human settlements, the city as a home, spaces of conviviality [etc].