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U.N. Summit Focuses on Future of World’s Cities

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A colorful mix of more than 10,000 government ministers, diplomats, mayors and grass-roots activists on Monday launched final negotiations on a global plan for cities.

The lavish, two-week “city summit” known as Habitat II--the last major United Nations conference of the millennium--winds up a series of nine major U.N. meetings since 1992 that have mapped out international action plans for the environment, population growth and the status of women.

“By the year 2000, almost half the world’s population will live in urban centers . . . the crises of urban development are crises of all states,” U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said in a speech that opened a new, marble-clad convention hall overlooking Istanbul’s Bosporus waterway separating Europe and Asia.

Delegates of all nations could be seen in intense conversations at the hall and other venues in a cordoned-off area of this ancient Turkish city, swapping papers, ideas and addresses. Their 200-paragraph plan of action, or “Habitat Agenda,” will set internationally agreed patterns of urban development, frameworks for cooperation and standards by which to judge progress and goals in years to come, according to Boutros-Ghali.

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Only about a third of the Habitat Agenda has been approved in preparatory meetings. Delegates are still divided on who will pay, and how much, for institutions and programs; whether having a house is a human right in itself; and whether developing nations are right to push for growth and wealth before turning to environmental concerns such as saving rain forests.

“Some have suggested that rather than sustainable development, we should focus more narrowly on the objective of achieving sustained economic growth. . . . But to do so would be self-defeating,” Michael A. Stegman, the alternate head of the U.S. delegation, told the first plenary session of the conference. Stegman is assistant secretary for policy development and research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The American national report for Habitat II largely addresses domestic problems, recommending four strategies for urban development: federal support for “locally crafted solutions”; partnerships between government and business; better links between cities and suburbs; and clean air, safe water and green spaces.

The U.S. Agency for International Development was showing off its “Lessons Without Borders” program, using experience gained in the Third World to solve some of the problems of U.S. cities. Lessons from Kenya taken to Baltimore, for instance, reportedly improved immunization rates.

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“It’s amazing how many issues are the same: infrastructure, homelessness, poverty, crime, mass transportation,” said Gary McCaleb, the mayor of Abilene, Texas. “The United States is not necessarily the most advanced in every area. There is also this whole notion of globalizing. We are going to see a lot of interaction. People in Abilene want a city that will continue to exist through the 21st century.”

Vice President Al Gore is the honorary head of the U.S. delegation but is not expected here. Attendance is less than a third of those who flocked to Rio de Janeiro’s Earth Summit or to the Beijing conference on the status of women.

Only 40 heads of state or government are expected to be in Istanbul this week. Organizers say Habitat II is a victim of people’s other political engagements and of conference fatigue.

“The U.N. General Assembly did not designate this as a summit, just as a conference at the highest possible level. Governments that have good intentions do not need to have heads of state to carry out the agenda,” said Wally N’Dow of Gambia, who is secretary-general of the U.N.'s Habitat organization.

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The lack of glamorous world figures has not dampened enthusiasm among civil organizations and municipal authorities. They are celebrating the way that the Habitat II conference admits them for the first time into formal partnership with the United Nations mechanism, allowing them to contribute ideas to the plan of action.

Gary Lewis, 38, of Costa Mesa, volunteered to sort out the tangle of scheduling for the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the conference. His group, the New York-based Information Habitat, has sought a role as matchmaker between agencies.

“There is no overall coordination between NGOs. But this can all be done easily on the Internet. About 30 NGOs here already have Web sites. We are helping to link them together,” Lewis said.

Almost all the $70-million cost of hosting Habitat II is being borne by the government of Turkey, which has high hopes for future use of the convention center.

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Turkey has brushed aside protesters who point out the irony in its hosting a conference on human settlements after years in which its security forces have forcibly evacuated more than 2,000 ethnic Kurdish villages during a Kurdish insurgency in the country’s southeast.

The conference Internet address is: https://www.undp.org/un/habitat.


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