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U.N. warns of urban ills

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A United Nations report released yesterday urges national and local governments to begin addressing the social, economic and environmental challenges associated with the unprecedented urbanization that will affect the globe during this century.

By the end of this year and for the first time in history, more than half of the world population, or 3.3 billion people, will be living in cities, said the annual report from the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA). That number is expected to surge to 5 billion by 2030, with most of the growth taking place among the poorest residents in African, Asian and Latin American cities.

Existing problems connected with urbanization — especially in developing-world slums — will only worsen if nothing is done to improve city services and meet the needs of the world's city dwellers, according to the report titled "Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth."

"The fight against poverty and the fight for environmental sustainability will largely be fought in cities," said George Martine, a UNFPA consultant who wrote the report. "Going with the flow, doing what's always been done, will probably leave us in a worse situation."

Policy-makers in developing countries need to reconsider their negative attitude toward urban growth, Mr. Martine said. Instead of preventing rural migration and ignoring the estimated 1 billion people currently living in slums, governments and city planners should focus on providing jobs, better living conditions, and health and social services to the urban poor.

While cities generally provide people with better services and job opportunities than they could receive in rural areas, a lack of such things can lead to widespread disease, crime and even religious extremism.

The report also highlights the importance of careful land management and its influence on the environment and living standards for the poor. "Cities need a longer-term and broader vision of the use of urban space to reduce poverty and promote sustainability," it said.

Because most urban growth is in cities of 500,000 people or less as opposed to sprawling megacities, Mr. Martine said, officials have the opportunity to plan growth so people are not forced to live on dangerous hillsides, along polluted rivers or in high-density areas lacking roads and basic water, sewage and electricity services.

Smaller cities in the developing world also have fewer resources available to manage such growth, raising the importance of international cooperation.

"The United States has a critical leadership role to play in addressing the challenges posed by urban growth and providing creative and lasting solutions," said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, New York Democrat, at a UNFPA press briefing yesterday. Mrs. Maloney, who works on a number of global women's issues, called on the U.S. government to increase its financial support of reproductive health care programs around the world and work closer with international organizations.

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