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26 March 1996

Press Release


19960326 GENEVA, 22 March (UN Information Service) -- A "Partnership for people in cities" initiative will be launched today in Geneva, with the mayors of Lisbon, Bologna, Birmingham, Montpellier, Göteborg, Geneva, the deputy mayors of Lyons, Rotterdam, Milan, and many others from both east and west, as well as the representatives of local authorities and their associations, meeting at the Palais des Nations to forge a common approach to their problems -- pollution, violence, drugs and housing. The meeting, under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN/ECE), Eurocities and the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, two European local government organizations, will attempt to establish a coordinated approach to the problems of cities, so as to improve living conditions in cities for the millennium to come.

The meeting of mayors, the first of its kind, will help to encourage partnership in the development and implementation of new human settlements strategies. It will encourage local authorities, in particular the municipalities, in cooperation with UN/ECE, to discover ways of making the necessary changes in consumption patterns and individual lifestyles in two ways. First, by focusing initially on a pilot project to promote partnerships with major groups, such as environmental non-governmental organizations, consumer organizations, trade unions, business and industry. Second, by calling for the integration of environmental considerations into decision-making.

The urban population has grown very rapidly throughout the world, increasing from 14 per cent at the beginning of the century to 25 per cent in 1950. Between 1950 and 1990, the number of people living in cities more than trebled, growing from 733 million to 2.26 billion. By the turn of the century, almost half the world's population will live in urban areas. In developed countries, 3 out of every 4 inhabitants will live in cities. That increase has been more visible in some countries of the ECE region than in others. For example, in Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, the former Czechoslovakia and Portugal, the urban population doubled between 1950 and 1990. Currently, the European countries with the highest urban populations are Sweden, Luxembourg, Germany, Denmark, Malta, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Iceland and Belgium, which have a rate of urbanization of more than 80 per cent. At the other end of the scale, in Portugal and Albania, less than 40 per cent of the population lives in cities.

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That immense concentration of people, unique in the existence of humankind, has created a number of acute problems. Life in big cities and their suburbs has often been destabilized because of their environmental conditions. On average, for example, it has been estimated that a European city of 1 million inhabitants generates 25,000 tons of CO2, 300,000 tons of waste water and 1,600 tons of solid waste every day. Any changes in the local conditions -- for example, a sharp drop or rise in temperature, or in social conditions -- could completely disrupt city life. In extreme cases, for instance, cities increasingly have to regulate the use of private cars, especially in periods of smog. Mayors or local authorities are sometimes obliged to ask children and elderly people to stay home because of pollution.

In addition to traffic-related air pollution and noise, most large European cities share a growing concern for traffic congestion and accidents, which are increasingly undermining the quality of life in urban areas. In addition, for many European cities noise has become the main local environmental problem. In large cities, the proportion of people exposed to unacceptable levels of noise is two to three times higher than the national average. Also, the economic crisis that has hit the region has further deteriorated living conditions. That was particularly true in eastern European countries, where the urban infrastructure was already in poor shape before the political reforms. The lack of resources and management has made things worse in many of those cities. Furthermore, unemployment, which in certain cities has reached alarming levels especially among the young, has pushed up the levels of crime, violence and drug abuse in urban areas.

To fight those problems, many UN/ECE countries have launched rehabilitation programmes related to housing. Renovating buildings improves energy efficiency. Further, green spaces have been created. Access to green areas was now possible within 15 minutes' walking distance for more than 50 per cent of urban residents in the majority of European cities. As for air quality, there had been some signs of improvement, especially in terms of SO2, due to the use of technical measures and more efficient technologies. However, the picture remained gloomy for other types of pollutants.

"The solutions", said Mr. David Dreiblatt of UN/ECE, "lie in public participation. A city vision is the articulation of the shared aspirations of the urban residents." Demands were emerging for closer links between those who govern and the governed, new forms of policies for communities, public-private partnership and participatory government.

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For information media. Not an official record.