Sustainable communities in an integrating world

With the approaching dawn of the 21st century, governments, organizations and peoples are expending enormous energies to develop communities that are socially vibrant, united and prosperous. The United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), which builds on the major global conferences of this decade, is a milestone in these efforts and portends major advances in community development.

In the long term, however, community-building efforts will succeed only to the extent that they link material progress to fundamental spiritual aspirations, respond to the increasing interdependence among the peoples and nations of the planet, and establish a framework within which all people can become active participants in the governance of their societies.

It is to these three foundational elements of sustainable communities that the following comments are addressed.

Human nature is fundamentally spiritual. Communities are unlikely, therefore, to prove prosperous and sustainable unless they take into account the spiritual dimension of human reality and seek to foster a culture in which the moral, ethical, emotional and intellectual development of the individual are of primary concern. It is in such a milieu that the individual is likely to become a constructively engaged, service-oriented citizen, working for the material and spiritual well-being of the community, and that a common vision and a shared sense of purpose can be effectively developed.

It follows that the material aspects of community development - environmental, economic and social policies; production, distribution, communication and transportation systems; and political, legal and scientific processes - must be driven by spiritual principles and priorities. Today, however, the substance and direction of community development are largely determined by material considerations.

Our challenge, therefore, is to redesign and develop our communities around those universal principles - including love, honesty, moderation, humility, hospitality, justice and unity- which promote social cohesion, and without which no community, no matter how economically prosperous, intellectually endowed or technologically advanced, can long endure.

The peoples and nations of the planet are being drawn together as they become more and more dependent upon one another. Settlements worldwide - from hamlets, villages and towns, to cities and megalopoli - are becoming home to increasingly diverse populations. This growing interdependence and the intensifying interaction among diverse peoples pose fundamental challenges to old ways of thinking and acting. How we, as individuals and communities, respond to these challenges will, to a large degree, determine whether our communities become nurturing, cohesive and progressive, or inhospitable, divided and unsustainable.

Unity in diversity is at once a vision for the future and a principle to guide the world community in its response to these challenges. Not only must this principle come to animate relations among the nations of the planet, but it must also be applied within both local and national communities if they are to prosper and endure. The unifying, salutary effects of applying this principle to the redesign and development of communities the world over, would be incalculable, while the consequences of failing to respond appropriately to the challenges of an ever-contracting world will surely prove disastrous.

Top-down models of community development can no longer adequately respond to modern day needs and aspirations. The world community must move toward more participatory, knowledge-based and values-driven systems of governance in which people can assume responsibility for the processes and institutions that affect their lives. These systems need to be democratic in spirit and method, and must emerge on all levels of world society, including the global level. Consultation - the operating expression of justice in human affairs - should become their primary mode of decision-making.

Naturally, old ways of exercising power and authority must give way to new forms of leadership. Our concept of leadership will need to be recast to include the ability to foster collective decision-making and collective action. It will find its highest expression in service to the community as a whole.

Ultimately, communities founded on these principles will thrive and prosper in the new millennium and will prove to be the pillars of a world civilization - a civilization which will be the logical culmination of humanity's community-building efforts over vast stretches of time and geography. Bahá'u'lláh's statement that all people are "born to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization," implies that every person has both the right and the responsibility to contribute to this historic and far-reaching, collective enterprise whose goal is nothing less than the peace, prosperity and unity of the entire human family.

[Editor's note: The following editorial has been adapted from a statement read by the Bahá'í International Community to the plenary session of the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) in Istanbul, Turkey, on 7 June 1996.]