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The inconvenient little mess in our big backyard

More than half the Earth's population are city dwellers and one in six of those live in slums. Glenda Bartosh looks for lessons learned from the World Urban Forum held last month in Vancouver to apply to the challenges this paradigm shift presents.



Ten years ago, Olympian Steve Podborski was asked to define the single most important issue affecting Whistler. Depending on where the needle sits on your cynic-meter, it’s both surprising and not that his answer remains cogent and pressing today, times about a billion: the transition from a growing community to a sustainable community and the issues that go along with it.

As the UN-Habitat World Urban Forum in Vancouver recently demonstrated, if we weren’t too cynical to listen, not only is it easy to extrapolate and build on that idea, it’s impossible not to.

I know, it’s hard, really, really hard to think about these things – especially, as Dr. David Suzuki points out, our brains are hard-wired to not consider a single slender soul beyond our own little tribe, one that shrinks by the digital day to me, my husband, little Alice or Alistair and mom and dad.

But the evidence is splayed at our feet in a messy, compelling array that’s hypnotic and, I venture, too scary to ignore.

Let me pick through a bit of it for you.

The weekly city on the daily planet

Last year, the planet reached a tipping point.

Now, I warned you – this is hard to think about, especially if you’re a born-and-bred Canadian anywhere between the age of, say, 16 and 76. For if you are, you’ve grown up looking at a globe or pastel-coloured map of our friendly little planet through a post-colonial Canadian world view that goes something like this: Hmmm, here’s a big blank country, which we invariably interchange with our Canadiana notion of "country", meaning wild open spaces interspersed with people living on nice little farms and ranches or in towns with names like 100 Mile House and Tofield.

Over here’s a dot for a city, and that means quite a few more people, living in relatively tidy and reasonable enclaves, with some high-rises and shops and scads of comfortable big homes, like Saskatoon or Vancouver. And on we go.

But in 2005 something happened that flips this wrong-headed notion on its ear.

For the first time, more than half the people on Earth were living in cities. That’s three billion of the whopping six billion people on our planet. And in 2005, for the first time, the number of people living in slums, which most of us in our comfortable homes can barely imagine, crossed the one billion mark. That’s one person in six living in a slum.

With war and lawlessness battering countrysides, global warming squeezing the life out of arable land, and the simple human hope for a better life, people all over the world, especially the developing world, are flocking to cities.

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