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Urbanisation Part III – Progress Since Rio ’92

Part three of a three part discussion entitled Urbanisation: towards a progress in understanding within the UN Sustainable Development Conference Arena


Progress since Rio ’92
Several UN and international frameworks and events address issues of urbanisation from various perspectives, and urbanisation is one of many important issues that are dealt with on the international agenda. Early Summits on broad topics in the natural and human environments and development led to more specific Conventions on population, human rights, settlements and sustainable development, including many related events.

In this section we will track the global progress of our understanding of the issue of urbanisation through the lens of the international Environment and (Sustainable) Development conferences, rather than a statistical analysis. The hope is to appreciate how world government representatives at the highest levels perceive and act upon the issues. This is an important distinction, because:

– We need to make decisions about the allocation of resources for the achievement of goals;

– These goals need to be premised on a thorough understanding of the problem on many levels;

– Without a sufficient understanding of the problem: A) we could easily misdiagnose the scale and extent or depth of the problem and, B) our goals will necessarily “be based on inappropriate indicators or indicators based on inappropriate assumptions;”

– We could misdirect opportunities that take insufficient cognisance of interrelationships and interlinkages and therefore take insufficient advantage of simultaneous, multiple-impact change possible in multiple arenas at multiple scales.

UNCED 1992: Rio Declaration and Agenda 21
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development brought forward statements of international import to law and policy. From this conference arose influential documents entitled the “Rio Declaration on Environment and Development” and “Agenda 21, the United Nations Program of Action from Rio” (A21).

Although not directly referring to urbanisation or sustainable cities as such, the Rio Declaration set out broad principles that focused attention and provided the groundwork for future efforts in sustainable urbanisation. Low et al pinpoint a salient contribution of the Conference: “Nature was no longer viewed either as a resource supporting the world’s population or as an idealised ‘other’- other, that is, than urban. The urban and natural environments were rather seen as an indivisible matrix in which human and natural processes interact.”

A21 is a comprehensive 351-page action programme in response to worldwide human activities, conditions and policies that negatively affect the environment and insufficiently address unacceptable human conditions such as poverty, hunger, ill-health, illiteracy, and inequality (between and within countries). The Agenda recognises the interdependent link between population, consumption and technology (i.e. manufacturing, cars, etc.) as central driving forces in both anthropogenic environmental change and poverty. In short, A21 sought to identify human and environmental problems, their causes, and the parties involved; and began to formulate broad principles for options, conditions, roles and outcomes in order to achieve improvement in human conditions and the environment.

In the context of urbanisation, a large section covering social and economic dimensions contains the beginnings of specific treatments on Sustainable Human Settlements. Eight ‘programme areas’ were identified to combat, among other things, problems of urbanisation and provide adequate, safe, accessible, serviced, sustainable, and liveable settlements, particularly for low-income and poor groups. The programme areas focused heavily on infrastructure and service provision, and urban planning and management.

Implementing these recommendations has proven challenging. Reports after Rio identified several serious difficulties, including opposition groups that take the narrowest possible interpretation and block A21 efforts, claiming conspiracy against property ownership, national sovereignty, spying and curtailing individual freedoms. It is easy to see why progress is difficult in the face of such challenges.

UNWSSD Johannesburg, 2002
The UN Earth Summit 2002 convened to discuss international progress on sustainable development and create a revised and updated set of development objectives: the Johannesburg Declaration and the Plan of Implementation (JPoI).

Reports suggested the outcomes were far from satisfactory, despite widespread recognition of immense problems and acknowledgement of the great need to respond. Producing primarily reaffirmations of previous agreements from the Rio’92 and Millennium Summits, there was a palpable absence of agreement on new commitments. However, six significantly positive decisions were made on: decoupling economic growth; corporate responsibility; ethics in A21; local people and natural resources; sanitation targets; and new partnerships.

As disappointing as it may have been, the JPoI is meaningful to urbanisation in both practical and political ways. In terms of politics, the significance was tripartite: the participation and tone of civil society that translated into the official meeting was an important depth gauge of insufficient progress and a sign of things-to-come; fairly intense intergovernmental politics detracted from the process, with leadership voids leading to weak objectives; inadequate progress and missed opportunities signified the stagnation now evident at the world stage. Future progress on urbanisation issues has met such sluggishness.

In terms of practical issues, agreements on basic sanitation targets were considered by some as the most important, representing a concrete, life-saving objective directly benefiting millions of poor, urban dwellers enormously. Unanimous agreement on local community rights to manage natural resources was considered a major achievement, particularly for the implication on urban dwellers. This included: improved access to economic activities (however informal), appropriate land tenure for indigenous and common property resources, agricultural resources for the poor; sustainable, community-based biodiversity, ecosystem and natural resource use.

Decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation was significant in the context of urbanisation whereby: resource use; consumption and production generally; resource degradation, pollution and waste were all targeted. This meant any urban growth (in footprint, population, economy, etc.) would need to address resource and land conservation in ways that are sustainable and non-degrading.

The very fact that the Johannesburg Declaration remained a reference point for Rio+20 and receives about 5,680,000 results in Google is a testament to its reach and longevity. A review of the Rio+20 conference outcomes might help reveal its efficacy.


UNCSD 2012: Rio+20
Rio+20 was difficult from the start, when critics inferred likely outcomes light of economic and political climates. With Rio+10’s negative and challenging atmosphere and outcomes, sadly in ten years very little seems to have altered the entrenched, unilateral mind-sets of big countries. Rio+20’s participation, politics and progress seem to have imitated Rio+10.

Despite a resoundingly poor reception, the outcome document entitled “The Future We Want” (FWW) describes several commitments, initiatives and recognitions relevant to the urbanisation field. Highly significant was the re-appearance of a Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements section, containing three important commitments to action, but with many paragraphs cast in the pervading non-committal language.

Specific commitments were made with regards to: improvements in quality of human settlements, particularly in relation to eradicating poverty, including living and working conditions; integrated approaches to planning and building sustainable settlements; and SD policies for inclusive housing and social services. The urbanisation issues ‘recognised’ or ‘stressed’ included: advancing the Habitat Agenda; regularising its’ finance; and needing a holistic approach affordable housing and services for slum upgrading and urban regeneration.

Throughout the document were advances in related areas that stretched across a wide array of urbanisation inputs. Even with the feeble language and commitments, the range of issues begins pointing to a recognition of the complex and interrelated issues facing society, despite the inhospitable financial, economic and political climates.

Progress Summary
Three principal agreements remain prevalent and ‘in circulation’: Agenda 21, MDG and Rio+20. According to the 2012 MDG progress report, conditions have improved for over 200m slum-dwellers, approximately double the 2020 target. Sadly, the number of people living in slums continues to grow from 650-million in 1990 to 863-million estimated today, with the worst affected areas including Western Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Conversely, other areas associated with urbanisation have seen positive developments as a result of the MDG and their initiatives.

We have seen the intellectual development of a complex and interrelated set of natural environment and human development issues in the UN conference fora. At each conference a set of objectives or goals has been documented, ranging historically from broad and aspirational to targeted, measurable and time-bound.

Unfortunately, seriously demanding immediate, practical challenges have since arisen that have distracted international attention from the broader urbanisation agenda. Recent outcome reports and articles indicate that progress is slow and implementing the commitments remains fraught with apathy, bureaucracy or corruption. When the clouds of aspiration fade, what remains are the committed teams of practitioners and volunteers that face ill-conceived, improperly engaged or poorly implemented initiatives that can exacerbate the very problem they sought to alleviate.

Given the challenges of development progress, let alone gaining a consensus on the nature and scale of problems themselves, criticisms should recognise that any progress seemingly hard-won actually happens in the real world. Yet if we underestimate the scale, depth, complexity and interrelatedness of the problem, or the effort it takes, we are destined to set our sights too low and risk escalation.

Tackling issues on environment and development is a time-consuming process, one that must keep pace of various changes that impact every angle. A strategic shift is required to incorporate processes, models and measures that: address the ‘fast-changing dynamics’ of our world; more acutely anticipate changes; and make difficult decisions on concrete priorities.

For a fully referenced version of the entire three-part essay combined, please click here: Urbanisation-Towards a progress in understanding_COMBINED

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This entry was posted on 12 January 2013 by in Environmental Sustainability, Urbanisation.

Part of the Problem? or Part of the Solution?

Rampant consumerism.
Widespread unsustainable lifestyles.
Unsustainable business practices.
Damaging and unsustainable travel and transport.
Extensive environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
These are some of the problems we face.
Energy crisis.
Financial crisis.
Uneducated and un-empowered.
Environmental damage.
Food and water shortage.
Climate change.
Are you part of the problem,
Or are you part of the solution?

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