Inter Press Service English (1 oktober 2007)

No safe cities without justice, says UN-HABITAT

The world's urban poor are the worst affected by crime and violence, natural disasters and insecurity of tenure, finds the new Global Report on Human Settlements, published by UN-HABITAT on World Habitat Day Monday.

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Half of the world's population lives in cities. By 2030 an estimated two-thirds will be urban dwellers. This rapid urbanisation is creating challenges, says the report 'Enhancing Urban Safety and Security'. The Global Report on Human Settlements is published every two years by UN-HABITAT, the United Nations human settlements programme.

Between 1980 and 2000, recorded crimes increased by 30 percent from 2,300 to more than 3,000 crimes per 100,000 people, the report says. As a result, fear has become an important factor in city life. Public opinion surveys in both developed and developing countries reveal that more than half of the citizens worry about crime very often.

"About 60 percent of urban dwellers in developing and transitional countries have been victims of crime over the past five years", Anna Tibaijuka, Under Secretary-General and UN-HABITAT Executive Director said at the launch of the report here. "It shatters the misconception that the rich als most targeted by crime."

The prevalence of 100 million street children perpetuates drug and human trafficking, violence, abuse and poverty.

"For a city to be safe, people have to be safe at home", said Tibaijuka. But a third of the world's urban population is constantly threatened by forced evictions or insecurity of tenure. This undermines the safety of almost one billion slum dwellers. As land values within cities continue to rise and as housing solutions are increasingly left to market forces, at least two million slum dwellers are evicted annually, UN-HABITAT states.

The report also reveals that 98% of the 211 million people affected by natural disasters between 1991 and 2001 were in developing countries, the consequences being severe as natural disasters have increased fourfold since 1975 and man-made disasters increased tenfold. Many of these hit cities, and the poor are often located in the most hazardous areas of the city.

"It was shocking for us to discover the figure of 98%", Naison Mutizwa-Mangiza, Chief of the Research Division of UN-HABITAT told IPS. "At this moment, 19 African countries are affected by flood at the same time. That hasn't ever happened before in my life."

However, the report is not only about gloom and doom, he said. "We describe many successful policies that give us hope. Cuba, for example, developed a succesful system to prevent disasters. It is completely integrated in their planning system, and kids learn in the schools about disasters. It doesn't take additional money, it takes political will. But as a consequence, very few Cubans died from the many hurricanes that plagued the West-Indies between 1996 and 2002."

Something can be done, too, to prevent poor people from becoming criminal, and that goes beyond just a strong police force. "It is not just poverty, but idleness that leads to vice," Anna Tibaijuka told IPS. "Therefore it is necessary to focus on entrepreneurship. The majority of the poor are young, so creating employment for them is the key to a safer society. They are often ignored by politicians."

Urbanisation is sometimes driven by poverty in rural areas, but that doesn't mean it is bad, Tibaijuka said: "Urbanisation is not bad. It creates opportunities, and people want them. But we should focus on secondary towns, in order to prevent all the people from ending up in one big city."

Lindiwe Sisulu, minister for housing in South Africa, and keynote speaker on World Habitat Day, focused on the importance of housing after a period of conflict. "In the beginning we didn't realise that shelter is critical for reconstruction," she said, "but we discovered that people need the possibility of improving their lives. Otherwise they will never improve their environments, and that shapes society."

"We consider secure tenure as a right," she told IPS. "We want to provide all indigent people with free basic housing and free sanitation. Ten million people have already been provided for, but another seven million are still waiting for it." The main difficulty is the people themselves. "They often don't want us to upgrade their settlements. Besides, all success stories attract new migrants, creating new problems while we are solving the old ones."

Sisulu pointed out that combating crime has to be done cross-sectoral. "Our National Crime Strategy hinges on the community." Safety cannot created by building walls, she added, criticising the rich who often concentrate in 'gated communities'.

"Many rich people are living in islands", conference chair Jan Pronk, former Dutch minister for international cooperation and former minister for housing, told IPS. "However, social and economic integration is needed for real development."

In his home country, the Netherlands, the problem is slightly different. "Here the rich are moving back to the rural areas, leaving the cities with problems and less capacity to solve it."

Migrants, on the contrary, want to live in cities, because they can find more opportunities there, said Ella Vogelaar, Dutch minister for housing. The segregation that results from this creates a lot of tensions and socio-economic problems. "We decided to choose forty problematic neighbourhoods in the country. Together with other departments we integrate our housing, employment, education, integration and safety policy."

The solutions are similar across the world, she told IPS. "We have to focus on opportunities for the angry young population in the same way as developing countries do."

A cocktail of urban planning, policy, design and governance can help make cities safe and secure, UN-HABITAT believes. Therefore local authorities need to be democratic and accountable, said Bert Koenders, Dutch minister for international cooperation. "Where there is lack of governance, horror scenarios can unfold like in Guatemala City," he told IPS. "The elite flies to Miami for private health care, services like public transport go down, and 6000 people are killed annually." He rather points to the example of Rwanda. "Kigali is the cleanest city of Africa. People even do community service on Saturday mornings."

"Urban policies, which are often sectoral, should place poverty reduction at the center", concluded Mutizwa-Mangiza. "Poor people need assets, and therefore you have to create jobs. The aggregates, of which the so-called national Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers speak, don't say anything, if they don't come down to urban issues. We want them to deal with livelihoods."

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