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Networking for Urban Environments

Hari Srinivas


The criticality of urban environments is illustrated by the fact that most of today's global environmental problems can be traced back, directly or indirectly, to urban areas and urban lifestyles which have become the preferred choice for a majority of humanity. Urban centres have far reaching and long term effects not only on its immediate boundaries, but also on the entire region in which it is positioned. Along with the benefits of urbanization and agglomeration come environment and social ills including lack of access to drinking water and sanitation, pollution and carbon emissions etc.

A sound urban environmental policy one of the first steps in a long process of regaining the vitality and pivotal roles that urban areas play. Information has been a key ingredient in developing and implementing a comprehensive policy that is sensitive to economic, social, cultural and environmental factors. High quality information that is accurate, timely, relevant and unbiased has facilitated effective networking and action for urban environmental management.

This paper looks at the critical effects of urban areas and identifies information as a key policy input. It calls for information networking on the internet to channel organizational and operational resources.

Few issues have managed to capture and hold the world's attention as that of the environment. The overriding immediacy and importance of environmental issues have united the spheres of education, research and practice into an intrinsic framework within which a diverse set of disciplines have positioned themselves. Issues such as ecology, biodiversity, climate change, desertification, global warming etc. have found sustained support and interest under the broader umbrella of 'environment'.


'Environment' means different things to different people. For some, it means separating the garbage into burnable and non-burnable items. To others it means saving on electricity or using less water. The term 'environment' may be associated with restoring the vitality of tropical rain forests, maintaining biodiversity and arresting desertification. Developing healthy, sustainable and safe communities becomes important to yet others. The environment also means agricultural and industrial production that is sound and 'green'. Some associate man-made chemical and nuclear hazards with concrete environmental policies. All of these views are right in their own way, and are united in its concern for the effects that the environment has on the day-to-day lives of current and future generations.

The concern and problems associated with the environment have placed such issues high on the agenda of many bilateral and multilateral meetings. The Earth Summit of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro managed to highlight and channel efforts in understanding and acting on environmental problems, making it a key issue to be tackled in trade and commerce, in economic and social development, and in science and technology. Subsequent summits and congresses the Social Summit and the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995, the City Summit/Habitat II in 1996, not to mention innumerable regional, national and local meetings all had the larger global environment as a key common denominator in its action plans.

It is only in the last two decades that a better understanding of the effects of changing environments and ecosystems has been developed. Interconnectedness of these factors has forced particular attention on human lifestyles and living conditions that has a profound effect on its surroundings. Most, if not all, environmental problems that we currently face can be directly or indirectly traced back to the legacy of lifestyles that we are inheriting and leading as human beings. Nowhere is this more true that in concentrations of gregarious urban lifestyles that are becoming the option of choice for the majority of humanity.


Urban lifestyles and consumption patterns have far-reaching and long-term effects not only on its immediate boundaries, but also on the entire region in which it is positioned. Cities and towns in most countries around the world have been gaining considerable attention due to the large number of households migrating to cities and its consequent effects. It has also been due to the centrality of goods and services that cities offer, emerging over the last few decades as the major form of settlement. By the turn of this century, we will be witness to a ubiquitous scenario where more people will live in and around cities than in rural areas. In 1800, only 50 million people lived in towns and cities worldwide. During 1975, there were 1.5 billion, and by the year 2000, this will be three billion - more than the entire population of the world in 1960. (Megacities 2000, 1996: codex.html) Proximity to decision-makers and financial markets, large pools of skilled and unskilled workers, and other advantages have made such urban areas the engines of growth for the countries and regions where they are situated. For example, despite the environmental and social problems that it is facing, Bangkok's contribution to the national GDP has been estimated to be more than the combined output of all other cities in Thailand (ESCAP, 1991).

The result of this has been the explosive growth of urban areas, bringing with it a host of negative effects. Population concentration in increasingly smaller land masses has caused a drastic decline in the quality of living both in the residential and work fronts. Cities have, in effect, become a barometer of humankind's progress into the 21st century, whether this is an upward or downward trend. Such a scenario has had ripple effects on a variety of sectors such as education, health, labour/job markets, and economic activities.

The growth and effect of an urban area should be seen not only in terms of its immediate boundaries, but also in terms of the resources necessary to sustain its population. An illustrative example is that of the Greater London area. The land mass that generates the resources necessary to sustain the population of London, called the 'urban footprint,' is actually slightly less than the entire land area of UK! (OneWorld, 1996: footprint.html). This illustrates the complex interrelationship and interdependence of urban areas and their surrounding hinterland. According to the Earth Council's report, "Ecological Footprints of Nations" Japanese lifestyles generate a demand for 6.25 hectare per capita (for resources such as energy, arable land, pasture, forest, built-up area, etc.). But the supply has been only 1.88 hectare per capita. This leaves a 'ecological deficit' of 4.37 hectare per person that has to be met from outside the country. The conurban region of Tokyo had a 1995 population of 26.8 million. For Tokyo alone, this ecological deficit is equal to 116,242,000 hectare or 3.07 times the total land area of Japan (Earth Council, 1996: ranking.htm). This becomes 9.2 times the land area of Japan if only habitable land is taken into account (excluding mountains, water bodies etc.) The effects of urban activities (Table 1) have in many cases outweighed the relative advantages of agglomeration and centrality that they offered. Thus, along with the benefits of urbanization come environmental and social ills, including lack of access to drinking water and sanitation services, pollution and carbon emissions etc. A wide variety of urban problems can be observed, grouped under two broad contradictive classes, those associated with poverty and those associated with economic growth and affluence (WRI, 1996:ud_txt1.html).


While laws existed to effect interaction and participation between the various actors involved in urban growth processes, it was not adequately exercised both on the part of local governments (Sufficient information was not provided), as well as other actors and citizens themselves (there was no commitment to participate). Information that was shared by the government was, in many cases, partial or selective. There has, however, been a growing awareness of environmental problems and its causes and effects. With a gradual increase in the transparency and openness in the functional organization and operation of governments, legislation on information disclosure has been receiving considerable importance. This has prompted calls for a major change in the basic understanding of citizens' participation and the consequent needs of information for decision making processes from the points of view of all actors involved (Kumata et al, 1995). Community involvement becomes all the more critical when the shortcomings and weaknesses of local governments to effectively deal with the range of problems are taken into account.

It is helpful therefore, to look at urban environments from three view points: the natural environment, the built environment and the socio-economic environment. Natural environments are essentially resources, processes and effects related to flora and fauna, human beings, minerals, water, land, air, etc. Built environments are resources, processes and effects related to buildings, housing, roads, railways, electricity, water supply, gas etc. The socio-economic environment includes resources, processes and effects related to human activities, education, health, arts and culture, economic and business activities, heritage - urban lifestyles in general. It is the intersection and overlay of these three dimensions that constitutes an 'urban environment'.

The World Resources Institute's report, "World Resources 1996-1997" focussed on urban environments. In its executive summary, the report illustrates -

" ... Burgeoning cities are expanding into fragile ecosystems ... Cities sometimes deplete nearby areas of water and firewood, rendering them less capable of supporting rural populations and thus adding to the pressures for urban migration. Air pollution already exceeds health standards in many megacities in developing countries. Sewage and industrial effluents are released into water-ways with minimal or no treatment, threatening human health and aquatic life. Some urban environmental problems such as access to safe drinking water improve with economic growth, while others tend to worsen. Thus in the absence of policy reform, stronger institutions, and enlightened political leadership, economic and population growth in developing countries in the near term may lead to a deterioration of the urban environment, both physical and social. Stresses on the global environment from urban activities are also likely to accelerate. A major share of greenhouse gas emissions already comes from the use of fossil fuels in wealthy urban areas, especially in the developed countries." (WRI: execsumm/index.html, 1996)

Interaction between the different actors at different levels of urban growth processes and cycles becomes critical to respond to the increasingly complex policy and investment choices that urban communities face. There are many key points that arise in support of a sound urban environmental policy (IFEI, 1992). The concept of sustainable development ought to take into account the needs of future generations in decisions on how and whether to use resources and apply technologies, This is done through policies, investments and development plans. A clear position within a policy framework should be delineated, based on natural ecosystems at national, regional and local levels, as well as on human-environment interactions. It should take into account the stresses and effects occurring within these ecosystems. A system of prioritization has to be put in place which incorporates human life, health, depletion and productivity of resource stocks, capacity of the environment, and systematic accounting measures. Environmental policies have to be based on an understanding of the causes of environmental degradation and of the environmental impacts and cost-effectiveness of solutions, as well as the uncertainties associated with it. Policies should also contribute to greater public understanding of environmental issues through more open access to information and decision-making process. Operationalizing environmental policies, therefore, require the integration of many interrelated economic, environmental, social and cultural factors.


Consequent to the greater awareness and greater concern afforded to urban environments has been the need for high quality information that is accurate, timely, relevant and unbiased. Increasing calls for networking for urban environmental issues has stemmed from a need to generate awareness. Appropriate policy design, informed decision-making and prompt monitoring and evaluation have all relied on networking among the various stakeholders in the urban environmental field. Effective networking has been particularly facilitated by access to, sharing and dissemination of, information.

In principle, there is a need to broaden and deepen the knowledge database of scientific and technical information concerning the links between economic activities and the environment. New data and knowledge on different aspects of urban environmental change needs to be collected. Such data has to be collected with its end-use in mind, providing the appropriate information at the appropriate level. Monitoring systems and information management technologies need to be extended and improved. Long-term monitoring systems, training, easily understood technologies of information gathering, effective use of existing data, and increased speed of data transmission are some of the ways in which this can be achieved. While accessibility and relevance of environmental reporting need to be widened, there is also a need for strengthening and expanding partnerships among institutions that produce, analyze and disseminate environmental information. Geographical Information Systems need to be used for spatially segregated data. Levels of aggregation and coverage need to be linked to different levels of decision-making and stages of implementation (IFEI, 1992).

This also places emphasis on the methodology of packaging and reporting information. The aims and objectives, and language used significantly alters the quality and quantity of information being disseminated. Reports, print and electronic media, internet, audio and video cassettes, conferences and workshops facilitate better understanding of the issues involved, and assist in decision making.

Criticality of information needs at the international, national, regional and local levels have to be balanced by the information collection processes that complement the need and packaging of information in terms of its collection, analysis, interpretation, and reporting. Thus, information is used for the detection of changes in the environment, which is important in the identification and recognition of environmental issues and problems. It provides a basis for evaluation and decision-making. It also facilitates monitoring of policy and programme performance in the implementation stages. In order for information to play its critical role in policy development, there is a need for accuracy and spread of issues covered, adequate historical and geographical coverage, and its comparability and consistency in collection.

Effectiveness in the implementation of a policy can also be attributed to effective dissemination of information. The aim of information dissemination is public education and enlightenment, consensus-building, and the promotion of awareness. The quickness and periodicity of dissemination, along with its form, appropriateness and accessibility, has to be considered in dissemination.

With the objective of collecting information that is of good quality, reliable, timely, relevant, and processed in order to facilitate the processes of urban environmental management, the following design principles need to be kept in mind when developing an appropriate information system (UN-DPCSD, 1996):

  • Subsidiarity: It is necessary to keep the information collection process decentralized in nature, and proximate to data collectors and users, since it is they who best understand its use and limitations.
  • Responsibility: Collectors of data should be responsible for its accuracy and appropriateness. Data should also have 'meta-data' such as date, origin and conditions for access, and responsible organizations.
  • Transparency: Information should be freely available for all purposes and at all levels. All decision-makers should have access to the same information with highest standards of reliability.
  • Efficiency: Data should only be collected once, avoiding unnecessary duplication, and simplifying reporting requirements. Data once collected, should be readily and rapidly available to all users.
  • Economy: Investment in the system should be done in scale to the use and analysis.

Providing information at the appropriate level, to the appropriate actors is key to an efficient information system (IFEI, 1992). For example, in a policy decision-making process, scientists and resource users, researchers etc. are the actors involved in problem identification. Here information is produced and analyzed through observation, research-oriented data collection and scientific analysis. When it is necessary to generate awareness of the problem with the wider public and action is demanded, then environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community groups, the media, etc. are involved. Information here is used to draw attention to the seriousness of the problem, in order to motivate action and find a remedy. Alternative actions are formulated by policy analysts from different disciplines who work for NGOs, industry, government and universities/research institutions. In this case, information is used to determine responsibilities for problem mitigation, costs and consequences of the problems, and developing alternative solutions.

Politicians and their advisors as well as industry persons decide on the course of action to be taken for which they need information to evaluate the different courses of action, based on their individual constituencies and responsibilities. Monitoring and evaluation is critical for feedback on the action. Here again, scientists, resource users, statisticians, economists, managers, NGOs etc. are involved in generating information to monitor environmental conditions and changes that occur in response to the chosen course of action.

Thus, environmental information is crucial to assess the impact of human activity on the environment. It helps in managing the natural and man-made resources in a sustainable way. Sound and sustainable decisions can be made by anticipating environmental degradation of resources and prevent costly remedial action. Progress towards achievement of development goals can also be made, assessing long-term effects of management interventions.


In recent years, the internet, has gained considerable importance as a communicative and adaptive means of sharing and disseminating information on urban environmental issues. Many subject-specific groups have grown on the internet, rallying around shared expertise and ideals, by the enablement of new forms of communication. The most obvious example of these new media is electronic mail, the world wide web and bulletin boards or newsgroups which are in fact just the first generation of new forms of information and communications media. In general, for environmental management, there have been essentially three broad areas where the internet has proved viable: (a) query processing answering questions, enquires and requests; (b) sharing of ideas and information about policies, programmes and projects; and (c) database development on a variety of subjects. These advantages have been well understood and utilized by a wide variety of organizations those with well established bases, as well as those that have primarily grown out of and on the internet. Brief descriptions of three examples are provided below. A longer list of urban environmental sites is included in an appendix.

  1. Envirolink Website
    EnviroLink is a non-profit organization...a grassroots online community that unites organizations and volunteers in over 130 countries. Its features include an environmental library, a e-news service and One World, a magazine. It also hosts the Sustainable Business Network.

  2. EU: European Sustainable Cities & Towns Campaign
    The European Sustainable Cities & Towns Campaign was launched at the end of the first European Conference on Sustainable Cities and Towns, which took place in Aalborg, Denmark from 24-27 May 1994.The objective of the Campaign is to promote development towards sustainability through Local Agenda 21 processes, by strengthening partnership among all actors in the local community as well as inter-authority co-operation. The Campaign forms part of the Sustainable Cities Project, which is the overall title for the co-operation between the Campaign, the EC Expert Group on the Urban Environment and the Commission Services (DGXI).

  3. Asia-Pacific Cities Forum
    The Mission of APCF is to act as a catalyst for a continuing and constructive interaction between leaders of business, government, civil society organizations, academia, and media in Asia and the Pacific region whereby partners are able to leverage their respective resources to a degree not achievable individually. APCF's initial role is to assist cities and communities by facilitating an activist network among all stakeholders in urban development. In doing so, the optimal assembly of resources will be enhanced to support cities in the achievement of their respective sustainable development goals.


Earth Council, "Ranking the Ecological Impact of Nations" (Internet Document on the World Wide Web, Earth Council, [ ranking.htm ] 1996).

IFEI , Proceedings of the Environmental Information Forum. (Montreal, Canada: International Forum on Environmental Information, 1991) pp. 25-29

Kumata, Yoshinobu, Sachihiko Harashina, Tatsuro Sakano and Hari Srinivas, "A City is not a City: Reflections on a New Language for Megacities". (Paper presented at the Pre-Habitat II Tokyo Conference on The World Cities and the Urban Future, United Nations University, 23 - 25 August, 1995.), p. 2-4

Megacities 2000 (1996). Megacities Codex. (Internet Document on the World Wide Web, Megacities 2000, [ ] 1995)

OneWorld, "Cities: London's footprint" (Internet Document on the World Wide Web, OneWorld Inc. [ ] 1996)

Srinivas, Hari, "Information Systems in Urban Environmental Management: Roles for the Internet". (Paper presented at the Second International Symposium on Urban Planning and Environment on Strategies and Methods for Improving Environmental Quality in Compact Cities. 11-14 March 1997. Groningen, The Netherlands), p. 2

UN-DPCSD Report of the Workshop on Information for Sustainable Development and Earthwatch. (Geneva: United Nations Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development, 24 September, 1996) p. 6-8

UN-ESCAP, The State of the Environment . (Bangkok: UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific, 1991) pp. 108-139.

WRI, "World Resources 1996-97: A Guide to the Global Environment" (Internet Document on the World Wide Web, World Resources Institute [ index.html ] 1996).

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