Creating sustainable communities

In Brief: 

The scale and complexity of the problems facing human settlements require a deeper analysis. The real basis for creating sustainable communities lies first and foremost in the promotion of unity.

Throughout history, urbanization has been associated with human progress. Humanity's coming together in villages, towns and cities has fostered social, economic and cultural development. Many of our greatest religious, political, educational and scientific institutions have been established in metropolitan areas. In short, to borrow a phrase from the Habitat II agenda, cities have been the "incubators of civilization."

Yet cities - and indeed human settlements on all scales - are today under siege. Around the world, human settlements, especially the largest ones, seem instead to be incubators of crime, poverty, ill health, social alienation, and environmental pollution.

The situation is patently unsustainable. Trends in crime, poverty and pollution, as well as urban migration, traffic congestion and infrastructure decay, are converging on chaos in many cities - with collateral effects in the countryside.

The main question before the upcoming United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), then, is this: how do we go about creating sustainable human settlements?

Too often in the past, solutions to the problems of urbanization have been seen principally in technical terms: better urban planning, new technologies of transportation and energy production, and superior social service organizations. That was a common refrain at Habitat I, held in Vancouver 20 years ago.

Habitat II's draft agenda shifts the focus to socio-cultural solutions, suggesting that only through a "partnership" involving the participation of actors at all levels of society can human settlements be made sustainable. It also draws extensively on the agenda for sustainable development, social integration, and gender equity set by recent United Nations world conferences.

Nevertheless, the scale and complexity of the problems facing human settlements require a deeper analysis. The real basis for creating sustainable communities lies first and foremost in the promotion of unity.

The quest for unity is the central impulse in human civilization. Gathering as families, tribes, cities, city-states and finally nations, humanity has reached ever higher levels of social, economic and cultural development. Each stage reflects a certain level of unity, and progress to the next is possible only when that sense of unity is enlarged.

Unity, in this context, is not uniformity. Rather, unity in human society can be best understood by comparison to the human body: although composed of widely differentiated and highly specialized cells and organs, the body functions as one unit with a common purpose and an integrated existence. True unity, then, is based on an appreciation of diversity, coupled with a shared sense of values and goals.

Such unity in society enables cooperation, creates conditions for human development and promotes the group's prosperity. This has been the case for the tribe, the city, and, today, the nation. History has also shown, however, that if a group fails to make the transition to the next level, its long term survival - its sustainability - is threatened.

According to this paradigm, the real source of urban problems stems from underlying disunities within modern society. Poverty comes from the disunity of classes within society and reflects a failure of people to fulfill their moral obligations towards one another. Crime is a manifestation of the extreme disunities between individuals and society at large. And environmental degradation also stems from a failure to apprehend the unity and interdependence between humans and the physical world, as well as a neglect of the sacred trust this underlying unity requires. The list can go on.

The real question, then, is this: how do we create such an ever-widening sense of unity in human settlements?

The first step is to understand where humanity's central quest for unity is taking it: towards a unified global society. Already, we have seen the unification of global markets, the growth of a world-girdling system of mass communications, and even the development of new global cultural norms, such as the widespread acceptance of universal human rights.

Recognizing and acknowledging our essential unity is also a key step in addressing the "local" problems on the Habitat Agenda.

In the past, it was easier to find solutions to urban problems when the population of a city, a town or a neighborhood was relatively homogenous in its background, values and goals. But in the cosmopolitan megacities of today, neighborhoods may be populated with families from dozens of different nationalities, cultural groups and/or religious communities.

And the world today is a global neighborhood. The health of a community - the number of new jobs created, the availability of food, the cleanliness of the environment - depends as much on decisions made in overseas markets and capitols as on local efforts.

Another essential element in the creation of unity is justice. These two imperatives are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have true unity without justice; and the elemental understanding of what is just must be based on a consciousness of unity. "The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity among men," wrote Bahá'u'lláh some 100 years ago.

In this day, bringing about justice means a greater sharing of resources, wealth, information and technology, as well as efforts to provide education for all, observe human rights, eliminate racism and promote the advancement of women.

On a more practical level, an important step towards creating unity lies in fostering the concept of world citizenship. By promoting this ethic in schools, the media and the arts, much progress can be made towards the goal of developing well-rounded citizens who are strongly committed to the well-being of their families, fellow citizens, communities, nations and, ultimately, the entire human family.

In the final analysis, however, building sustainable human settlements will also require a greater acknowledgment of humanity's spiritual nature. In the past, communities were built not only from bricks and mortar and patriotism, but also from broad qualities of spirit - the willingness to put the good of the entire community ahead of selfish concerns, as well as devotion to duty and moral discipline.

In our era, it is only by reaching for the next level of human unity, at the global scale, that we can unleash the spiritual, moral and social forces capable of healing the divisions and solving the problems that are currently afflicting our communities. This is true from to the smallest hamlet to the largest megalopolis.