Define Ecological Issues

While there is now widespread agreement that urban environmental issues are important, there is little coherence in how international agencies and others define the urban environment and identify its critical problems. This is not just a semantic question, as it is intimately related to how and where funds are allocated and to who can expect to benefit from the resulting environmental improvements. Most of the confusion arises from the qualifier ‘environmental’ and what it should mean in an urban context.

If urban environmental problems are defined and pursued too broadly, then almost all urban development initiatives can be labeled environmental. For example, Einstein’s oft-cited definition of the environment as ‘everything that is not me’, could be used to designate anything from better shopping facilities to better televisions as urban environmental improvement.

But if urban environmental problems are defined too narrowly, many of the generalizations noted in the introductory paragraph cease to be true. For example, defining urban environmental problems as ‘the degradation of urban water, air and land’ excludes many of the environmental health problems suffered predominantly by the poor, as well as the extra-urban impacts that threaten regional and global sustainability.

While both very broad and very narrow usage are common in the literature, when people complain of ‘environmental problems’ they are typically referring to damage to the physical environment, mostly caused by other people, and usually with harmful consequences for human welfare, either now or in the future. So common sense suggests that urban environmental problems are threats to present or future human well-being, resulting from human-induced damage to the physical environment, originating in or borne in urban areas.

This definition includes:

  • Localized environmental health problems such as inadequate household water and sanitation and indoor air pollution.
  • City-regional environmental problems such as ambient air pollution, inadequate waste management and pollution of rivers, lakes and coastal areas.
  • Extra-urban impacts of urban activities such as ecological disruption and resource depletion in a city’s hinterland, and emissions of acid precursors and greenhouse gases.
  • Regional or global environmental burdens that arise from activities outside a city’s boundaries, but which will affect people living in the city

It does not encompass:

  • Problems in what are sometimes termed the ‘social’, ‘economic’ or ‘cultural’ environment.
  • Natural hazards that are not caused or made worse by urban activity.
  • The environmental impacts of urban activities that are of no concern to humans, either now or in the future.

The table presents a wide range of city-related environmental hazards. Despite their diversity, all fall within the definition, provided the phrase ‘resulting from urban activities’ is itself interpreted broadly. Most are the unintended side-effects of human activity in cities. Some might more accurately be ascribed to a lack of preventive measures. In all examples, however, better urban practices and governance could help reduce the burdens, and it is this distinction that is most critical operationally.

The urban environment in international development assistance

By and large, the definition given above is consistent with the perspective on urban environmental problems taken by most international development agencies (a notable exception being the Dutch government’s DGIS, which explicitly includes the urban social environment as a focal area, alongside the urban physical environment). However, a review of a range of bilateral and multilateral donors suggests that several factors skew the operational definition of environment away from many of the central environmental concerns of the urban poor:

  1. Responsibility for taking the lead on environmental matters is often assigned to divisions that are not directly involved in urban development assistance on the grounds that the environment generally, and natural resources in particular, are primarily rural concerns. Such divisions are unlikely to have the knowledge or influence to promote urban environmental issues. Moreover, they have a tendency to define environment in natural resource management terms, which can easily lead to ignoring the environmental health issues that are of particular concern to the urban poor. National and local environmental agencies in recipient countries, the natural counterparts of environmental staff in development agencies, also tend to define their role as one of ‘protecting’ the environment and to view most of the environmental threats in low-income neighborhoods as beyond their mandate.
  2. Broad definitions are employed to illustrate the importance of environmental issues but narrower definitions are used to construct environmental indicators, while still narrower definitions are typically employed to identify environmental programs and projects. Thus, for example:
    • It is routinely noted that millions of deaths every year from diarrhea and respiratory infections could be prevented by environmental improvements.
    • Statistics on household access to water and sanitation are only sometimes included in lists of environmental indicators.
    • The projects that target such improvements are generally infrastructure projects and are labeled as such (i.e. they are rarely part of a donor agency’s ‘environment’ portfolio).

    This can easily give the impression that environmental initiatives are responding to a far broader set of environmental concerns than they actually are, while at the same time ignoring environmental benefits that can come from ‘non-environmental’ initiatives.

  3. Operationally, a distinction is often made between two different approaches to environmental improvement: investing in ‘stand-alone’ environmental initiatives and attempting to ‘mainstream’ environmental...

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