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World Resources 1996-97
(A joint publication by The World Resource Institute, The United
 Nations Environment Programme, The United Nations Development
 Programme, and the World Bank)
 (Edited by Dr. Róbinson Rojas)

1. Cities and the Environment


Historically, poverty has been concentrated in rural areas. Yet as the bulk of the world's population shifts from rural to urban areas, poverty is becoming an increasingly urban phenomenon. The World Bank estimates that in 1988 approximately one quarter of the developing world's absolute poor were living in urban areas (67). By the year 2000, half of the developing world's absolute poor will be in urban areas (68). Several factors, including structural adjustment programs, economic crises, and massive rural-to-urban migration, have contributed to an increasing number of urban poor since the 1980s (69).

Urban poverty is especially pronounced in Latin America. In this region, the absolute number of urban poor already surpasses the number of rural poor (70). Between 1970 and 1990, the number of urban poor increased from 44 million to 115 million, while the number of rural poor increased from 75 million to 80 million (71). In Asia, large decreases in the proportion of the population living in poverty were reported for the rapidly growing economies, such as Malaysia, the Republic of Korea, and Indonesia (72). However, South Asia is expected to continue to house a large share of the world's urban poor (73).

Reliable data are lacking on the scale and intensity of urban poverty in Africa, although the proportion of the population living below the poverty line is likely to have grown because of the region's poor macro-economic performance (74). The incidence of rural poverty is still significantly higher than that of urban poverty, but that difference appears to be narrowing (75).

Poverty has also risen steeply in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as they struggle with the transition toward a market economy (76). Cities that relied heavily on industrial production are experiencing record numbers of unemployed as factories shut down and production is curtailed (77).

In North America and industrial Europe, most of the population, and thus most of the poverty, has been concentrated in urban areas since the beginning of the century (78). The characteristics of urban poverty, however, are changing. As the manufacturing base of many cities has declined and the middle class has fled to the suburbs, urban poverty has become concentrated in the inner cities and among ethnic minorities, especially in North America. (See Box 1.4.)

In developed regions as well, unemployment is a primary factor contributing to urban poverty. However, in contrast with cities in the developing world, the growth in urban unemployment in cities in developed regions is the result of a combination of slow macro-economic growth, technological change, export of manufacturing jobs, and increases in the female labor force (79). As manufacturing jobs are transported to other regions, few opportunities are left for inner-city poor, who tend to be geographically isolated in the urban core and are often unable to reach jobs in the suburbs. Especially in inner cities, the mismatch between the education levels of the residents and the levels needed for the locally available jobs greatly contributes to poverty. (See Box 1.5.) In New York City, 33,209 new jobs were created between 1980 and 1990--nearly a 10 percent increase--but 162,739 manufacturing jobs were lost during that same period (80).

Available poverty figures are likely to underestimate the extent of urban poverty, because global data are scarce. The issue is complicated by the fact that definitions of poverty differ from country to country. In addition, absolute poverty figures describe households whose incomes fall below a set level, usually determined by how much money would hypothetically be required to buy a basket of basic goods and services. Poverty lines, however, are often set unrealistically low. In some countries, the poverty line is set at the same level for both urban and rural areas, not taking into account the higher costs of living in cities.

Nor can poverty be adequately described as just a lack of economic resources or access to basic needs. Poverty also involves relative deprivation or inequality in access to income and material goods and services--and in most countries, income inequalities are wider in the city than in the countryside. Another shortcoming of income-based measures of poverty is that they do not describe the numbers of people who hover just above the poverty line and who can easily be thrown into poverty by any number of setbacks, such as the loss of a job or sudden illness (81).

Certain groups within cities--in particular, women, children, the elderly, migrants, and minorities--are more likely to face pressures that either contribute to or exacerbate conditions of poverty (82) (83). Women face a number of social barriers that limit their access to income-earning opportunities. In many countries in the developing world, for instance, girls and women still do not receive the same amount of schooling as do men (84). Within poor households, girls and women often receive less food than males and income-earning adults (85). In countries where women do not have the right to own property or gain access to credit, sudden loss of a partner or job can leave the household without any means to stay afloat.

Children are also especially vulnerable to poverty. According to World Bank estimates, in the year 2000, half of the children born in urban areas in developing countries will be in poor families (86). Child poverty is strongly self-perpetuating. Poor children are more likely to be underweight and malnourished and to suffer ill health and earlier death than their wealthier counterparts (87). Many poor households rely on child labor for survival, yet this work is often at the expense of schooling and the health of the child, making it difficult for the next generation to escape from poverty. An increasing number of children are also facing new dangers associated with homelessness and street life--an estimated 100 million children struggle for survival daily on city streets (88) (89).

Households headed by women tend to be disproportionately poor, and their proportion appears to be growing, especially in large urban areas (90) (91). In poor households in the developing world, women often take on the triple role of income earning, child rearing, and household management (92). When women must spend a significant proportion of their time collecting water or fuel, they have less time available for income-earning activities. However, the increase in female-headed households has positive aspects as well. Poor households may be better off when headed by women than men (93). Numerous studies have shown that women and children in female-headed households tend to have better diets than those in male-headed households of similar incomes, and children are less likely to be withdrawn from school at an early age (94).

Environmental Implications of Urban Poverty 

The urbanization of poverty has implications for the urban environment and quality of life. For one, the urban poor bear the greatest burden of urban environmental risks because of the situations in which they are forced to live--whether in the sprawling squatter settlements of developing world cities or in the blighted urban centers of Europe and North America.

Throughout the cities of the developing world, anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of a city's population lives in substandard housing (95). Unable to afford even the lowest-cost housing, many of the poor build their own makeshift shelters out of cardboard, plywood, or scraps of metal. Overcrowding increases the risks of airborne infections and accidents. Many poor neighborhoods are often unserved by water and sanitation facilities and garbage collection. In some cases, local governments are unable to pay for extending services to these regions; in others, they are reluctant to do so because such action might be seen as conferring legal status on what they consider illegal settlements (96). Whatever the reason, the lack of services increases the risk of intestinal infections and other communicable diseases (97). In Manila, mortality rates for infants are three times higher in the slums than in the rest of the city, rates of tuberculosis are nine times higher, and three times as many children suffer from malnutrition (98).

The urban poor are also forced to make trade-offs between affordable housing and environmental safety and protection (99). Squatter settlements are often located on land no one wants--whether on flood plains or on steep hillsides, where they are vulnerable to flooding and mudslides.

Proximity to industrial facilities, often the result of the desire of the poor to live near places of employment, poses another set of risks. The 1984 accident at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India, caused 2,988 deaths and at least 100,000 injuries, affecting mostly residents of the shantytowns near the chemical factory (100).

The poor also contribute to local environmental degradation, mainly because the city fails to provide them with the necessary services. If solid waste is not collected, for instance, people must dispose of their own garbage and often do so in inappropriate dumping areas (101). Denied access to suitable land for housing, families may settle in protected areas of the city, on fragile ecosystems such as wetlands (102). Disposal of human wastes from the over-water settlements in cities such as Salvador, Brazil, and Manila can be a major source of water contamination (103). When low-income groups engage in environmentally degrading activities, however, it is usually because they have no alternative (104) (105).

The poor are understandably reluctant to invest heavily in improving the household or neighborhood environment since they could be evicted at any given time (106). As is described in Chapter 5, "Urban Priorities for Action," and Chapter 6, "City and Community: Toward Environmental Sustainability," however, once given housing security, these same individuals often become substantial agents for environmental improvement.

Similar trends are evident for the poor who reside in many of the thriving cities of developed regions. Although the environmental health threats they face pale in comparison with those experienced by their counterparts in developing regions, their burden is excessive nonetheless when compared with circumstances of the wealthier residents of the same city.

Many of the urban poor lack access to safe and affordable housing. Extended families crowd into one-bedroom apartments, often with rodent infestations, gas leaks, and broken heaters. In the United States, elevated blood lead levels, often from dilapidated apartment buildings with peeling lead-based paint and poor ventilation, threaten the well-being of more than 1.7 million children. The most vulnerable are low-income minority children in central cities (107). Cold, damp homes impair the health of poor urban dwellers. In Britain, hypothermia results in approximately 30,000 to 60,000 excess winter deaths each year, especially among the poor and elderly who live in poor-quality housing (108). As is discussed in Chapter 2, "Urban Environment and Human Health," some of the major threats to the health and well-being of the urban poor are emerging from the social environment of cities.

In the United States, studies emerging from the new field of "environmental justice" suggest that hazardous waste sites, incinerators, and polluting industries are disproportionately located near poor and minority communities, whether urban or rural, although these studies are controversial (109). Methodological differences aside, there is little doubt that poor people and minorities are far more likely than their wealthier counterparts to live in blighted neighborhoods near industrial sites, exposed to a variety of pollutants.

References and Notes

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