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close this book Healthy Cities: our cities, our future
close this folder Part I: Perspectives
View the document 1. Our cities, our future
View the document Networking for action on sustainability and health
View the document Policies to improve the urban environment
View the document The wellbeing of cities and citizens in Europe
View the document Urban environment, health and the economy: Cues for conceptual clarification and more effective policy implementation
View the document Planning and creating healthy and sustainable cities: The challenge for the 21st century

Policies to improve the urban environment

Mr Ariel Alexandre

Head, Urban Affairs Division,

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)



The reasons why the urban environment must be improved are threefold:

1. The quality of life in cities is declining and urban pollution keeps increasing in terms of N0x and C02, waste, noise, ugliness, dirt, lack of greenery;

2. The demand for a good local environment is becoming increasingly loud and is therefore having a growing political impact;

3. Many modern activities seek to establish themselves in pleasant, non-degraded, non-polluted areas.

In addition, doing nothing about the urban environment would mean doing nothing about the environment in general; cities will therefore have a major role to play not only in improving their own environment, but especially in improving the environment at the international, global level.

So far most authorities - at every level - have tried to solve sectoral problems, such as air pollution and waste collection and treatment, or have tried to improve the built environment in certain districts by creating pedestrian zones, renovating housing, etc. Reducing urban pollution and improving the quality of life are still too seldom combined in a single policy. In addition, local coordination of the various sectoral policies for pollution control is still quite in-adequate. As for environmental requirements, they are very seldom incorporated in local non-environmental policies.

The objectives and resources for policies to improve the urban environment are still very limited. But despite these limitations, the efforts made by some cities are worth mentioning.


Lessons to be learnt from the experience of certain cities

Some cities have excelled in rehabilitating/revitalising old or run-down districts; others in the transport field and yet others in energy savings and the conversion of waste into heat and electricity.

Rehabilitation of run-down areas

Rehabilitation operations mainly concern the old town centres, but are increasingly being carried out in the neglected districts of recently-built suburbs or of former industrial zones which have become practically wastelands.

The experience acquired so far shows that the improvement of the built environment must be combined with a reduction in the most serious types of pollution (waste, water pollution, smoke) if the cities are to see a real economic revival. London, Manchester, Vancouver and Istanbul illustrate this point. In these cities new uses have been found for run-down buildings or sites, the areas near water have been improved and the pollution of this water reduced (the presence of water, whether a river or the sea, seems to facilitate environmental improvement, as if the water were in itself an environmental asset as well as an aesthetic asset and a recreational facility).

The success of urban rehabilitation policies depends upon preparing a long-term plan and making sure that it is actually implemented, obtaining diversified financial resources, creating a partnership with the private and not-for-profit sectors, inducing strong local and public initiative and setting aside sufficient land. In addition, the use of taxes and tax exemptions to encourage good local environmental practice needs to be encouraged, especially for the rehabilitation of former industrial sites.

In the future, growing and tourist cities will also have to be rehabilitated by simultaneously improving the built environment and reducing pollution. For the time being, rehabilitation policies concerning these cities tend to focus on improvements of the built environment and disregard the pollution and disamenity problem.

Urban transport

"Nomads have now invaded cities through the conversion of town dwellers to nomadic ways, partly as a result of the extent of urban areas and partly owing to the desire to be mobile. This invasion is similar to those by nomads in former times: streets are rendered unsafe by the passing hordes and the barbarians' horses occupy the Forum. The devastation caused by nomads is an ancient theme and has become a modern phenomenon. Movement overrides all values which hinder it." (Bertrand de Jouvenel, French Economist, extract from an address to OECD in 1971)

Road transport - both private cars and commercial vehicles - causes urban environmental problems in the form of air pollution, congestion, noise and danger. Many cities seem quite helpless in the face of the scale of the problems caused by road transport; either they do nothing, or their solutions come always too late, too slowly.

However, some cities have decided to adopt more drastic policies aimed at banning traffic, promoting public transport and reducing disturbance. In the study "Cities and Transport" the OECD has analysed those policies in Athens, Singapore, London, Los Angeles, Osaka, Munich and Paris.

More recently, some cities like Stockholm and Cambridge have even envisaged introducing road pricing. The principle proposed for Stockholm - making the vehicle driver pay for entering the city - is the same as the one which has already been used for 18 years in Singapore. The aim is to reduce private car traffic and therefore pollution and congestion, but also to improve public transport by using the funds generated in this way. Those who pollute most and use the most public space - i.e. private vehicle drivers - will pay for the pollution they cause, but they will also pay to make life easier for those who pollute least and use the least public space (i.e. public transport users). Levying higher taxes on the use of motor vehicles, particularly in congested urban areas, would be the most effective and fairest method of reducing urban transport pollution, noise and congestion. A growing number of cities (and perhaps even countries) will probably opt for it in the future by increasing taxes on petrol, levying taxes on carbon dioxide emissions, charging much more for parking, charging for the use of highways etc.

The second measure which would help to solve the urban transport problem would be to set up, in every major city or metropolitan area, a single authority responsible for both private and public transport. Only such an authority could find the necessary balance between private vehicles and public transport. Only this body could promote better internalization of the environmental costs due to private motor vehicles and the use of the revenue generated (by having car drivers pay for these costs) to improve the environment and urban public transport.

Generally speaking, it is now being realized that transport demand will have to be contained, i.e. limited or even reduced. This is a radically new idea in today's social and policy context where it is taken for granted that supply must always respond to demand. But this cannot remain true of urban transport, since the lack of space for infrastructure, congestion and pollution will themselves impose limits on traffic growth. Supply management will therefore have to give way to demand management.

Energy savings

Cities are not involved in the supply of energy except in a few countries (Germany and the United States in particular). Most cities, however, could, if they wished, play a greater role in energy savings and in using the resources available to them in the most environmentally advantageous way. They could encourage the creation of industrial plants and premises requiring little energy; they could promote programmes for energy conservation in housing; they could also plan land use with the aim of keeping energy consumption to a minimum. So far the most positive action taken by municipal authorities in this area has been to build combined heat and power plants and waste incineration plants that also provide heat (and sometimes even electricity).

Many examples can be quoted. For instance, Helsinki with its combined heat and power plants and Luxembourg and Brussels with their waste incineration plants which also produce heat and electricity.

To sum up in a few words the success of the policies conducted by the cities which are the most active in improving the environment, it may be said at the end of this brief review that cities must:

• take the initiative, rather than rely on other authorities to do so;

• adopt radical measures which may at first prove unpopular (pollution charges, vehicle taxes, etc.); combine the improvement in the quality of life with a reduction in pollution and disamenities and generally speaking, take a comprehensive approach stressing coordination of programmes and effective implementation.


Policy instruments

On the basis of the experience acquired by some cities, the most useful policy instruments and mechanisms seem to be:

• economic instruments;

• the systematic inclusion of environmental concerns in urban policies;

• partnerships with the private sector and the public.

First and foremost, every possible means must be used to achieve better "internalization of the environmental costs" caused by urban activities, i.e. to make those responsible for urban pollution pay for it or encourage them to stop causing it. In this area pollution and user charges should be used as extensively as possible. These charges are still too few in number or, when they exist, are set too low to be a real incentive.

If the aim really is to reduce urban congestion and pollution, it will be necessary to charge much more than at present for the use of vehicles and electricity, for the proximity of services, etc. In the private transport field, for example, taxes on the use of vehicles would have to be much higher than on their ownership if town dwellers are to be persuaded to switch to public transport, walking and cycling.


Integration of environmental concerns in urban policy

The next step should be to include environmental concerns in urban planning and management. To the same end, those in charge of policies and programmes which are not directly concerned with the urban and environmental field, but which have an impact on the urban environment should be persuaded to allow systematically in the planning phase for the possible environmental repercussions of their activities.

All kinds of mechanisms exist for this purpose - such as interdepartmental committees, systematically providing environmental specialists for the various national and local agencies which lack the necessary expertise and the creation of public urban bodies to coordinate all the local activities intended to improve the urban environment.



No policy for improving the urban environment can succeed without the active participation of the citizens concerned, nor without strong cooperation between the public, the not for profit and the private sectors: partnerships are a major policy instrument for the revival of cities and degraded suburbs and a key to the success of policies to improve the urban environment. In every case the cities of London, Manchester, Istanbul, Vancouver, Yokohama, Berlin etc., have adopted a policy of working in partnership with the private sector and voluntary organizations for their environmental improvement programmes.


Future prospects

Close examination of the efforts now being made at national and local levels to improve the urban environment shows that, despite their number and range, they are seldom an answer to all the problems of a city and even less to future problems.

Policies to improve the urban environment are still limited, piecemeal and never comprehensive. Moreover, implementation of "the polluter-pays-principle" has not yet had all the desired effects and there is still a long way to go before better internalization of environmental costs on the production and consumption sides is achieved.

In conclusion, two proposals :

Cities - meaning the local authorities backed up by the inhabitants and firms - should make sure they adopt much more ambitious and dynamic policies to improve their environment than has been the case so far. This means that cities should take the initiative and adopt a policy of innovation. This also means that national authorities should encourage such initiatives by passing on to cities the most relevant kinds of data, including information on experiments and by providing incentives and aid of all kinds.

Since it is realized that environmental problems are increasingly world-wide in scope - particularly the risk of global warming - it is becoming obvious that cities themselves will have to make an important contribution to solving global environmental problems, for the simple reason that they contribute in no small measure to these global problems.

The present degradation of the urban environment could become our poisoned legacy to the young and to the future. It springs from a single cause, illustrated by the names given to two French perfumes, one for men, called "Egoeste" and one for women, called "Narcisse". I am not inventing them. They sum up our civilization: utter selfishness and instant gratification.

A new ethic - combining individual and community values, self-realization and generosity - a new ethic must therefore be put into practice. But this will remain impossible unless we stop thinking of our participation in the common good as a tax, as an obligation. Rather we should willingly agree to pay for clean air in our cities, open spaces for the children living in crowded areas and public health in developing countries as if they were our own property - because they are our own present and future property.

If we refuse, we shall one day find ourselves shut out in the same way that we presently shut out the poor and the young, the developing countries and future generations.