Cities are People
01 June 1996

Another major global UN conference - this time on cities - has taken place in Istanbul. But Habitat II (child of 1976's Habitat) marked a new departure: for the first time citizens' groups took part officially alongside governments. `We are trying to change the very way the United Nations operates,' the deputy secretary-general of the conference, Brazilian George Wilhelm, told Britain's Independent on Sunday. `After all, it is not called the United Governments.' He likes to quote one of Shakespeare's less grammatical aphorisms: `What are cities, but its people?'

By the turn of the millennium Everyman, who has lived in the country since time began, will have moved into town. As the population balance tips from village to city, homo sapiens will become an urban species. By 2030 more than two thirds of us will be crowded into the cities.

On the face of it, this is not a happy prospect, for the world's cities drain its resources and focus its poverty. One third of the urban population of the global South live in shanty towns, with inadequate shelter and sanitation and high infant mortality. Even in the North, inner cities can be an unhealthy place to live. A man in Bangladesh is more likely to make it to 65 than one in Harlem, New York, in spite of the colossal wealth gap between their countries.

By giving citizens' groups a high profile, Habitat II recognizes that the hope for the world's overcrowded metropolises lies in their inhabitants. Wilhelm sees the cities' high population density as `a concentration of opportunities'. The record shows that solutions that spring from or involve local people have a much better chance of success than those imposed from above.

When Stephen Thake of the University of London embarked on a study of substantial community regneration organizations in Britain a few years ago, he expected to find three or four. To his surprise, he discovered hundreds of initiatives, all based on a `real and fundamental belief in people'. He sees them as the hope of the side.

Our lead story focuses on one of these initiatives, in an inner city district of Birmingham, Britain's second city.