Urban Woes to Explode Along With Populations, U.N. Says


In a disturbing new assessment of conditions in the world’s cities, the United Nations reported Sunday that about 500 million people are either homeless or living in unfit housing that is life-threatening.

The prognosis for the next 30 years is even more dire, as the population of urban areas is expected to more than double from 2.4 billion this year to 5 billion in the year 2025, according to the “Global Report on Human Settlements: An Urbanizing World.”

The growth of cities and the urbanization of rural areas are now irreversible due to the global shift to technological, industrial and service-based economies, the report says. Few countries are able to handle the population crush, which is thus likely to create problems on an unprecedented scale with everything from clean water to disease prevention.

Already, an estimated 10 million people are dying annually in densely populated urban areas from conditions produced by the unfit housing and poor sanitation, the U.N. report says.


For example, a plague in 1994 that afflicted almost 5,000 people and sparked the panicked exodus of another 500,000 in Surat, a comparatively prosperous city in northwest India, was linked mainly to unsanitary housing conditions.

“The most pressing global environmental, economic and social issues that we will face in the next century will be in cities,” said Wally N’Dow, secretary general of the U.N. Center for Human Settlements, which issued the survey.

“Homelessness and poor housing conditions are at the root of all these problems,” N’Dow said. “Urban areas have the resources to solve housing problems, but waste and mismanagement of urban resources cripples the effort.”

The United States has one of the world’s largest urban populations, which is still growing. At least 85% of all Americans will live in cities by the year 2025, up from less than 74% in 1975.

Worldwide, 38% of the population lived in urban areas in 1975. The figure is expected to reach 48% by the year 2000 and to climb to 61% by 2025, the report says.

“The bottom line is that the 21st Century will be the first urban century,” N’Dow said in an interview. “The problem is that we are woefully unprepared for it. That means the United States as well as my country, The Gambia.”

For housing, the world’s worst city is the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, where 79% of the population is either homeless or living in unfit accommodations. In the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, and the Colombian capital, Bogota, at least half the population lives in substandard housing or without shelter.

The industrialized West is not immune to the problems or consequences of ever-larger urban populations. In London, where homelessness is a growing problem, life expectancy among the homeless averages 25 years less than that of those with homes, the report says.

Over the next quarter of a century, the largest urban growth will be in developing countries. With one exception, Tokyo, the 10 largest cities 20 years from now will be in poor countries.

The pattern of growth in the developing world also differs from trends in industrialized countries. Urban populations in poor countries are doubling and tripling in a mere decade or two, N’Dow said.

The resources of poor urban dwellers are far fewer. Personal incomes are often as little as 1% of the annual pay of people in rich countries such as the United States; burgeoning cities of the Third World have limited means with which to create services and infrastructure.

But as cities increasingly dominate national life, their success is ever more critical to national survival. “No country can remain economically successful without competent and effective city governance that can attract new investment and can encourage innovation,” the report says.

To solve the homeless crisis, the report calls for governments to facilitate a greater role for the private sector in building housing. Home construction stimulates urban economies--and helps break the cycle of poverty that perpetuates homelessness.