For Release Sunday, April 4, 2010
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group
RIO DE JANEIRO — The world is urbanizing in an irreversible flood — 50 percent of mankind lives in cities and their metro regions today; 70 percent are projected to be city dwellers by 2050. The shift raises critical issues of food and energy security, water supply, pandemics — but also dazzling new human opportunities.
Big news? You’d think so.
Late last month more than 13,000 people from 150 countries met in this fabled Brazilian city to debate the top issues at the World Urban Forum sponsored by the United Nations-Habitat.
On hand were mayors and national officials, non-profit organizations, major corporations, grassroots organizers, urban experts, and scores of reporters. The Obama administration sent a record-sized delegation of 53, including Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials. Five hundred Americans came on their own initiative.
But did U.S. wire services, or big-time newspapers like the New York Times or Washington Post, cover the sessions? Or even mention the sessions were convening?
No. The British-based Guardian provided reports, as did Chinese, Pakistani, Philippine, South African, Ugandan papers. But the United States? States News Service made a serious try. But the most prominent U.S. press mention was likely a wiseacre column by the Washington Post’s Al Kamen, deriding federal officials for flying off on government money for “a spectacular weeklong event in, yes, RIO!”
But there’s more to Rio than breathtaking heights, great parties and sparkling white beaches. In 1897, it was the site of the world’s first “favela” — a seizure of vacant land by former slaves seeking a better life in the city.
Today Rio has some 1,000 shantytown favela settlements, some climbing the hills in direct view of the city’s office towers and fancy seaside tourist hotels – perhaps the globe’s most stark contrast of wealth and poverty. More than 10 percent of Rio households lack running water, close to a third lack sewage connections. In heavy rainfalls human and household waste flows directly into rivers.
And there’s a massive public safety danger too. Drug gangs control many favelas, where “ratting” on criminals may be a self-imposed death sentence. In a neighborhood bed and breakfast last week, I could hear gunfire– sometimes automatic fire — virtually every day. Main highways are sometimes closed off because of shootings.
Crime rates have dipped some of late, and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula encouraged World Urban Forum delegates to “witness the positive changes that are occurring.”
But relieving slum conditions is tough, decades-long work. When I asked Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan about the strong U.S. presence at Rio, he cited the parallel to the lawless, poverty-struck South Bronx of the 1970s and today’s dramatic improvement tied to such steps as community policing and strategic government housing assistance.
The Obama administration, said Donovan, is purposefully “reengaging with the world community” and its growing cities — “not only to share best practices from the United States but also in a posture of humility because there’s much to learn from other places.”
The administration crew in Rio, Donovan noted, had 14 bilateral meetings to discuss mutual problem-solving techniques with city and national leaders. Among the topics discussed was Spain’s advance in “green” building techniques — a vital lesson for the U.S. with its massive need to retrofit housing for greater energy efficiency and carbon reduction.
Esther Brimmer, assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, noted that one in six people on the planet now lives in a slum. “If the urbanization of the human species is not well managed,” she noted, we could see rising threats from increased spread of contagious diseases to mass migration of dispossessed, desperate peoples.
The challenge, Brimmer said, is building inclusive cities. Allowing women to have a voice and tapping their entrepreneurial skills is a critical way to build stable and progressive cities, she suggested. Another is engaging youth in technology, such as cell phones to report shootings and other criminal attacks (yet anonymously to avoid fear of retaliation.)
Running as a constant theme in Rio was the idea of according all peoples — even the poorest — a fundamental “right to the city” including basic services from clean water to education to transportation along with secure land tenure, even in favela-like settlements.
One can imagine supercilious journalists, or advocates of hard American military power, dismissing such city-to-city, nation-to-nation learning efforts as social frills, irrelevant to maintaining the United States’ global ascendancy.
But worldwide exchanges and learning of the best city practices could be the best national security steps imaginable. They start with the cooperative promise of building constructive relationships as a less arrogant America.
The end game goes further: to think ahead, build strong city-to-city, people-to-people exchanges in this increasingly urban world. And not just to be “nice,” but to relieve wherever we can the inequities and tensions that lead to struggles over resources, to poisoned waters and disease, and to sensationally expensive, blood-letting, armed conflict in the first instance.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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