Air Date: August 13, 1996 Program 9633


Participants at the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, Istanbul, Turkey

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground.

WALLY N'DOW: No nation can claim to have found the answers. We know that. The evidence underground points to the fact that even in the United States cities are in difficulties. So, too, are cities elsewhere. And what is better than trying to get together and have a consultation over them.

DAVIDSON: Two-thirds of the people on the planet will live in cities by the year 2025, the United Nations projects. Right now only half of us live in the cities, and the world's urban centers are already stressed. How will they accommodate all the newcomers? During this next half hour of Common Ground we'll travel the globe looking at innovative solutions to making human settlements more livable.

FEMALE: We want to break the image that low cost has to be low quality. You don't need to make low-quality structures. These are 20 houses that we did in the village next door for what we call the untouchables—with compressed blocks for walling, ferrocement, and prefabricated roofing.

For the same ones we have used... this is a rich man's house... with the huge dome and...

DAVIDSON: ...multilevels going off in different directions.

Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation, I'm Mary Gray Davidson.

FEMALE: I was a little girl watching my community being destroyed.

DAVIDSON: This video of the South Bronx in New York City depicts an area once known as a war zone. While the scene is unique to New York, the end result of poverty and despair is not. In too many cities of the world, too many lives are being lost. But the stories can turn out differently; and that's why over 20,000 people got together in Istanbul, Turkey, this summer for the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements to share their ideas and even solutions to making communities work, just as the Banana Kelly Organization has done in the South Bronx.

FEMALE: This community transforms itself because we took the responsibility instead of waiting for someone to say, "Hey. Maybe it's a good idea for you to do it."

DAVIDSON: This is the last in a series of Common Ground programs from the UN Conference on Human Settlements, which has come to be known as Habitat II. The two-week meeting brought together government officials from every nation—urban planners, environmentalists, professionals, and activists—all working to better where we live and thus create better lives.

The nongovernmental forum was the busiest site in Istanbul with visionaries and practitioners all displaying and sharing their can-do ideas. Like this architect from India, who was building a simple one-room house just outside the halls of the conference.

ARCHITECT: I specialize in building with earth and ferrocement. The aim of the project is to build a shelter which is low cost with earth technology, which will be cyclone and earthquake resistant.

DAVIDSON: These piles of blocks here have been manufactured...

ARCHITECT: Just the two of us, my partner and me, came from India with the machine. We got the material and labor together, and we manufactured all the elements needed for this house right here on site. We got the soil from the university area. So we arrived at a composition which was about 50 percent soil, 50 percent sand, 3 percent lime, and 8 percent cement.

We have a hopper in which we put the earth. We move it in. So we move it in, the earth falls in, and we move it back so it's always the same amount of earth. Then you close the machine. You need two men to compress with the lever.

DAVIDSON: So you did all these with that one machine?


DAVIDSON: You have round ones, you have...

ARCHITECT: ...columns, roofing. These are special blocks to cast lintels and beams in them. So you just lay this brick work with the steel inside, and you cast the concrete beam inside. These are the interlocking blocks.

Starting yesterday, we are assembling the house. And two hours of tomorrow we will have finished all of the walls. Because the blocks are special (they are interlocking blocks), they don't have mortar joints. The whole idea of these specialized blocks is that it can be used by semi-skilled labor to assemble their own house. All the workers don't need to be qualified masons. So in an emergency situation like after a disaster, even if you had one mason per team, you could organize a team of unqualified workers around them, and he would just check the plumb line and the split level. They would just assemble it like Legos.

DAVIDSON: That's exactly what I was going to say, these look like the children's...

ARCHITECT: Lego blocks. Yes.

DAVIDSON: ...children's building blocks, Legos.

ARCHITECT: Yes. So the whole idea is to simplify the product to an extent that the users find it very simple to assemble their house. They're able to lay one whole row of blocks, we've been timing them, in nine and a half minutes. So that's 30 feet plus about 40 running feet in 10. So they just lay it and the main guy, the one in the yellow t-shirt, Shir Mining(sp?) who is my partner, who is an architect, he just goes around checking it. Which would be the job that a skilled mason would be doing. All the rest of the people are unskilled labor here.

DAVIDSON: Have you had an opportunity to do real building in real communities?

ARCHITECT: Yes, of course. We have done in Aureville, where we are based. We have done at least about 15 projects with this.

DAVIDSON: How many houses total would that be?

ARCHITECT: Apartment blocks—we have done two sets of apartment blocks. We have done four school buildings. We have done kindergartens. We have done a public building which is like an information office (which is 1,200 square meters), a collective kitchen under construction (which is 2,000 square meters). We have done hostels, apartments, private housing, rich and poor housing also, lower economical housing.

What we find is that the material itself is low cost, but it adapts itself to all kinds of finishing. I can just make the wall as it is and put on a simple roof, and it's a habitat for a poor man. But if the rich guy wants to have something fancy with these blocks, I can create very interesting spaces also and give it a better finish. Just the fittings and the tops and other things are more fancy, but this material gives a good quality finish also. So you can do rich private houses with it.

For public buildings it's quite durable. I think 60 percent of the construction in the world until the last century was earth. Concrete is a very new invention, it's 120 years old or something like that. Before that it was stone, lime, and bricks.

DAVIDSON: People used whatever was around.

ARCHITECT: Concrete is a very new material.

DAVIDSON: The Aureville Building Project was just one of hundreds on display at Habitat II. The ideas ran the gamut from building technology using local materials to innovative waste management systems. The World Bank says the price tag for solving basic urban problems is not too high. It estimates the cost of providing basic services to every single person in the world somewhere around 0.2 percent to 0.5 percent of GDP over the next 15 years. Ismail Serageldin is vice president for environmentally sustainable development at the bank.

ISMAIL SERAGELDIN: We believe that the basic problems of dealing with the problems of cities is solvable, if what is now the best practices done by the few become the standard practices of all. The solutions will come from the cities themselves.

Basically, they revolve around three issues that are essential to create livable cities for the future. Number one is going to be to focus on the provision of basic services to the poor: water, sanitation, etc. With community participation, adoption of appropriate standards can be done with about $100 per capita per person, who is unserved right now, and which is quite feasible.

The second part, of course, will be to focus on pollution. Air pollution and water-borne diseases that have a huge impact on human health, especially among the poor. And phase out of leaded gasoline, for example, which has a huge impact on the growth of children. When we figure we have a billion people who have no access to clean water, 1.7 billion who have no access to sanitation around the world today, and 1.3 billion who are breathing air that is below what WHO says we should breathe (mostly in the cities of the developing world). And unknown and equally important, about 700 million people, mostly woman and children, who suffer from indoor air pollution, because they use biomass-burning stoves for cooking and stuff. That is equivalent to smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. These are the kinds of big problems that we have to address.

The third is really to clarify the intergovernmental management and financing systems, so that the notion of the devolution of authority is really associated with accountability, transparency, and the responsibility in government. On the other side, I am also saying community participation that comes in the civil society playing its role.

Now those three things together can, in fact, take care of creating a large part of the idea of livable cities for the future. Cities are going to be essential, because they are the engine of growth. This is where, in fact, a very large part of the future employment opportunities have to be created. The private sector is going to have to make investments. Where, in fact, the global economy is manifest itself, both of them opportunity in terms of the world markets and as a competition, in terms of bringing others to compete with the city. Therefore, the efficiency of the cities needs to be addressed. But essentially the livability of the cities and the efficiency of the cities go hand in hand through the application of these principles.

Now what we need to do, as I was saying, is that we will make the best practices of the few the standard practices of all. We at the World Bank have declared that we are willing to match the commitments of the governments with our financial support. We are going to triple the size of our average lending for urban. We are willing to put 15 billion dollars over the next five years, or more, if there is more demand for it and good projects that should be funded that follow these best practices.

DAVIDSON: We will take a short break from our coverage of the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements. You're listening to Common Ground a service of the Stanley Foundation, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this four-part series from Habitat II are available, and I will give ordering information at that end of this broadcast.

Habitat II wasn't about how to put up more housing projects for the poor, we already know how to do that and witnessed many tragic failures. Habitat II was more about community and building a culture of hope. Wally N'Dow was secretary general of Habitat II, and he knows that community involves more than just physical surroundings.

WALLY N'DOW: Even where the services work and the pavements exist and the traffic is there, you may not have livable societies. We know this. In line of the big cities in the industrialized world, most things do work, the infrastructure works. The buses run on time, the trains are there with people; but people flee these neighborhoods and those neighborhoods are not very livable.

So the challenges are how to introduce or how to ensure that the nonphysical aspects, those aspects of the human spirit, are given a place in the way we deal with each other and in the way that the governance of these places is organized. This is also what this conference is trying to do for the very first time. The conference has gathered here women and men of tremendous vision and prestige and clarity of thinking who are contributing this element into discussion—infusing the whole process with a message of human solidarity. The attraction about this is, in the face of competition today—very harsh competition for economic resources worldwide—in the face of that competition within the nations and between nations, if the human solidarity is not present there is tremendous injury to our society that awaits us.

DAVIDSON: Back at the nongovernmental forum in Istanbul, Deklyn Kennedy of Ireland was promoting his vision of community through the eco-village movement. Kennedy has lived in a German eco-village for years, and it solves two problems for him. He's living in an environmentally sustainable way, and he's not alone.

KENNEDY: The ideal eco-village is part fact that you have complete sustainability. Sustainability for me is that you produce more than you are using. Because if you are not doing that, you are taking it from nature. And this is our problem. We have to overdo it for the first while, because we've been overdoing it in the other direction. We have been using more than we produce, and nature has been making up for it. But with the amount of population in the world, now at the moment, nature can't make up for it anymore.

Sustainability for me is that point. So you have to think of everything you're doing. Where is the electricity coming from? Could you not do it yourself? Where's the heat coming from? Could you not have greenhouses or passive solar systems? Where are your vegetables coming from? Our vegetables? In the small villages such as lower Saxsony Germany, 50 percent is being flown in from New Zealand. This is just an energy waste completely. We are trying to get that going. We find that we can get lots of things going, lots of unusual vegetables in greenhouses and whatnot. So that's one side of it.

But the other side is the actual living together of people. Living in love and harmony with each other and with nature. When I was 51 I was just fed up of the hick hack and the rat race of the city of Berlin that I was living in. So I decided to try it out, and that was 11 years ago. I would never do anything else.

DAVIDSON: What is it like living in an eco-village?

KENNEDY: It's very exciting living in an eco-village, especially for a person over 60 like I am. You get new friends every day. You never have a chance to be in isolation, like so many elderly people in cities. You walk out your door and meet one of your friends and there's always a problem or a story or a child to be taken care of, or a plant. Somebody is worried about the trees. So, you've got this contact between young people wanting to have experience and older people with experience ready to give it. Plenty of older lads for small children, etc.

DAVIDSON: Is it a real primitive life? I'm trying to envision what an eco-village looks like.

KENNEDY: No. If you look over at that picture over there. We are dancing on the square. Do you see? We have a three-story building with a passive solar roof and greenhouse in front of it. We have brick paving on the main square, where we dance every morning. We have heating, and we have everything like anything else. There is no need, like the politicians are saying, for us to pull in our belts and to save, save, save.

This is wrong, I believe it's the wrong way. I believe in abundance. Look at nature. Nature is complete abundance. We just have to design right, and we just have to think right. We just have to ask the question, "Where is the thing that I am using now coming from?" If it is not renewable, forget about it. If it's renewable, take it because that's what God gave you.

DAVIDSON: But your walls don't look like this one that you got here for your demonstration with just the... what is that over the straw?

KENNEDY: This is a straw bale construction to show that a straw bale wall can stand on its own and can be this length. I would say the most wonderful example is on the other side over there. I'd like to show it to you afterwards. And that is this house that looks like 19th century palace. It's completely built of straw bales. So it doesn't restrict you in your design. I don't think we're going to build everything out of straw bales. I see all of these one- and two-story houses going up all over the world. The big trend is that of suburbia.

And they are all this energy. They loose energy all the time, particularly in the United States. The quality of insulation in the United States is really almost immoral. (laughter) It's not that they don't know it, because some of the best research has been done in the United States.

DAVIDSON: Probably, the most contentious issue at Habitat II was the question of whether housing is actually a human right. The US government was among those resisting efforts to call housing a stand-alone right in the final conference document. But the delegates to the meeting compromised in the end and chose language committing governments to the "full and progressive realization" of the right to adequate housing.

Melinda Kimble from the US State Department was on the US delegation.

MELINDA KIMBLE: The United States has recognized human rights from the beginning of our constitution. And so what has happened since 1948 is basically defining for the international community what is already recognized under US law. Housing is one component of the right to an adequate standard of living as set forth in the universal declaration. We believe that in that context the protections and remedies in US law support peoples' right to secure their own shelter. That is the idea.

Most shelter decisions are made at the individual level. So you have to create the enabling framework through laws and policies to enable people to make shelter decisions. When that framework fails for the marginalized, the homeless, then it's appropriate for governments to work on action to solve the problem.

DAVIDSON: Does that mean providing housing?

KIMBLE: In some cases it may mean providing housing and in other cases it, which is most common in the United States, may provide subsidized lending or other micro-credit programs.

DAVIDSON: In the end, conference Secretary General Wally N'Dow of Gambia was pleased with the final wording on the question of housing as a human right.

N'DOW: I think it is a very important step in a universal acknowledgement that we are talking about a very basic human need, basic even to human existence and social progress of mankind. Shelter and housing have always existed in a basket of rights in the universal declaration of human rights since 1948. But trying to progressively make it a stand alone, stand free human right, this is the very first big step that the international community has made.

There is no other way you can pursue human security of the real kind. When I say security of the real kind, I mean security that is not dependant on arms and armaments and soldiers and policemen, but real basic security addressing human needs. There is no way you can further that objective without looking at housing and shelter and lending them the importance and the prestige and the urgency of the right, almost. So, we're just happy. We are elated, I think. This really has been a landmark. If nothing has succeeded but this thing, this conference has achieved a great victory.

DAVIDSON: Like it or not, the United States plays a huge role at these international conferences. Everyone recognizes its power and leadership. It's hard to miss how so much of the world hangs on every pronouncement and idea coming from the Americans, which is why Paula Di Perna, an editorial writer for the Earth Times newspaper was disappointed that so much attention was paid to the rights debate.

PAULA DI PERNA: The irony for me as an American citizen is that for at least 50 years the United States has been spending an inordinate amount of money and a tremendous amount of the lives of its citizens to protect and fight for democracy. Now the world has embraced that concept. At the very moment when the world is poised to absorb most of the values, the moral and civic values of the United States, the United States instead of helping those nations takes those values and uses them for the development of their people. The United States has taken, I would say, a very minimal position in this conference and a minimal position in the United Nations apart from certain polemics, say over the right to housing.

I would very much like to make the point that the concept of overseas development assistance is one which has a moral grounding. It is not true that it has been a failure. If overseas development assistance has failed, it has been because of a number of factors well beyond the model of ODA. For example, there has been a cold war. Most overseas development assistance didn't go to the poorest countries. It went to the countries that either the Russians or the Americans could line up in their favor.

Population growth has been so incredibly quick and rapid. It overcame the best intentions of ODA. It's really not true that the money American citizens have given to other countries has been wasted. Sure there's waste, but there's waste in the United States, too. I think it's extremely irresponsible of certain parts of the senate and the congress to attempt to convince the American people, who have been generous in paying their taxes and hoping this money would do some good, to now say that money has been wasted. It has not been wasted. It's extremely subversive of the values that I was raised in as an American citizen to suggest that money has been wasted.

DAVIDSON: Despite the polemics and debate inherent to international conferences, it was the spirit of hope that prevailed at Habitat II. A spirit the American artist Robert Raushenberg attempted to capture in a painting he did for the conference called "Clandensity."

ROBERT RAUSHENBERG: My work with the United Nations, which is always done with an inner pride, is not a sacrifice. It's my way of being able to at least say I tried something to improve the world that not only you have to live in, but I do too. So, it's a form of selfishness as much as it is a generosity socially. I am optimistic in spite of the brutal directions that man can bring on, not only each other, but on the world itself.

This consideration isn't new to me. Twenty-five years ago I made the first Earth Day poster. Then 25 years later, I made the last one. In between I worked on the rain forests and leprosy and problems in Africa. I'm glad that I have found a way of focusing on my frustration about the various changing conditions of the world and optimistically think that what small part that is in the overall play, it does make a difference.

DAVIDSON: That is artist Robert Raushenberg at the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, held this June in Istanbul, Turkey.

For Common Ground, I'm Mary Gray Davidson.

Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free, and the cassettes cost $5.00. To order a tape or transcript, or if you'd like to share your thoughts about the program, you can write to us at the Stanley Foundation, 216 Sycamore Street, Suite 500, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Be sure to refer to program number 9633. If you would like to contact us via e-mail you can write to us at To order by credit card you can call us at 319-264-1500.

The theme music for Common Ground was created B.J. Liederman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.


Copyright © 1996, The Stanley Foundation