Information and Urban Environments

Hari Srinivas
Continuing Research Series E-130. October 2020

If every human group had been left to climb upward by it's own unaided efforts, progress would have been so slow that it is doubtful whether any society by now could have advanced beyond the level of the stone age ...

- Ralph Linton, 1934

1. Introduction

Cities and towns in most countries around the world have been gaining considerable attention due to the large number of households migrating to cities and its consequent effects. It has also been due to the centrality of goods and services that cities offer. Over the last few decades, they have emerged as the major form of settlement. By the turn of this century, we will be witness to a ubiquitous scenario where more people will live in and around cities than in rural areas. In 1800, only 50 million people lived in towns and cities worldwide. During 1975, there were 1.5 billion, and by the year 2000, this will be three billion - more than the entire population of the world in 1960. (Megacities 2000, 1996: codex.html) Proximity to decision-makers and financial markets, large pools of skilled and unskilled workers, and other advantages have made such urban areas the engines of growth for the countries and regions where they are situated. For example, despite the environmental and social problems that it is facing, Bangkok's contribution to the national GDP has been estimated to be more than the combined output of all other cities in Thailand (ESCAP, 1991).

The result of this has been the explosive growth of urban areas, bringing with it a host of negative effects. Population concentration in increasingly smaller land masses has caused a drastic decline in the quality of living both in the residential and work fronts. Cities have, in effect, become a barometer of humankind's progress into the 21st century, whether this is an upward trend or downward. Such a scenario has had ripple effects on a variety of sectors, such as education, health, labour/job markets, and economic activities, both directly and indirectly.

The growth and effect of an urban area should be seen not only in terms of its immediate boundaries, but also in terms of the resources necessary to sustain its population. A telling example is that of the Greater London area the land mass that generates the resources necessary to sustain the population of Greater London, called the 'urban footprint,' is actually a little more than the land area of UK! This illustrates the complex interrelationship and interdependence of urban areas and their surrounding hinterland. The effects of activities in urban areas (Table 1) have in many cases outweighed the relative agglomeration and centrality advantages that they offered. Thus, along with the benefits of urbanization come environmental and social ills, including lack of access to drinking water and sanitation services, pollution and carbon emissions etc. A wide variety of urban problems can be observed, grouped under two broad classes, those associated with poverty and those associated with economic growth and affluence (WRI, 1996:ud_txt1.html).

Table 1
Components of the Urban Environment
Human Resources
Intermediary products
Recyclable materials
Population Growth
Community Services
(Education, Health ... )
Negative Effects:
Pollution (air, water, noise) waste generation (garbage, sewage), congestion, overcrowding
Positive Effects:
Product value-addition, increased knowledgebase/ education, access to resources and better services

While the causes for these problems are many, focus has been maintained on the role and contribution of urban planning processes to this situation. The processes involved in urban planning and development vary considerably, and depend on a number of objective and subjective aspects in the physical, social, economic, and political spheres. In general, planning involves the cyclical processes of plan and policy-making, public debates and feedback, and its implementation and evaluation. A plurality of actors are involved in these processes, such as local governments, citizens groups, industry, governmental ministries, departments and other agencies, and the planners themselves. The interaction and intersections between these affect the overall development of the urban environment and the quality and attributes of the urban environment.

2. Policy framework for urban environmental management (UEM)

Historically, interaction between the various actors involved in UEM processes has been very weak and ineffective. While laws to effect such involvement existed, it was not exercised both on the part of local governments (adequate information was not provided), as well as other actors and citizens themselves (there was no commitment to participate). Information that was shared by the government was, in many cases, partial or selective. This put the entire decision-making process in the hands of the government as the main actor.

There has, however, been a growing awareness of environmental problems and its causes and effects. With a gradual increase in the transperancy and openness in the functional organization and operation of governments, legislation on information disclosure has been receiving considerable importance. Parallel to this has been a movement among the citizens to not only be aware of the processes of UEM within their community, but to also be involved in the design of decision making process itself. This calls for a major change in the basic understanding of citizens' participation and the consequent needs of information for decision making processes from the points of view of all actors involved. With their direct involvement, the citizens of a community can be seen as major actors and partners in the process of planning. Such a give-and-take of information and decision support not only links the planning sector and the community, but also all sectors of the local government that affects the development of a region. Community involvement becomes all the more critical when the shortcomings and weaknesses of the local government to effectively deal with the range of problems are taken into account.

At the lowest level, community involvement can be seen as passive acceptance, where the community reorganizes and adjusts to the implemented public plans. Public sector plans then become a base on which private decisions are made. At higher levels of participation, however, the community is directly involved in the decision-making process at all levels. Thus matching and synchronizing public plans to private/individual plans become important, where public services are developed so that the private/individual plans can function and be implemented efficiently. It also calls for open and free participation at all stage of the process and with no restrictions or barriers.

This is not to discount the roles of the government at the national, regional and local levels. A powerful argument remains for a strong government role in environmental management (Devas and Rakodi, 1993). Governments are needed to plan for growth, to regulate polluting activities, to harmonize competing uses of the urban environment, and to address questions of equity that purely market-oriented approaches do not cover. In efforts to improve the urban environment, local governments are especially critical since they are responsible for most aspects of environmental management at the city level, from the provision of urban infrastructure and land use planning to local economic development and pollution control.

Thus, interaction between the different actors at different levels of the planning processes and cycles becomes critical to respond to the increasingly complex policy and investment choices that urban communities face. There are many key points that arise in support of a sound urban environmental policy (IFEI, 1992). The concept of sustainable development ought to take into account the needs of future generations in decisions on how and whether to use resources and apply technologies, This is done through policies, investments and development plans. A clear position within a policy framework should be deliniated, based on natural ecosystems at national, regional and local levels, as well as on human-environment interactions. It should take into account the stresses and effects occurring within these ecosystems. A system of prioritization has to be put in place which incorporates human life, health, depletion and productivity of resource stocks, capacity of the environment, and systematic accounting measures. Environmental policies have to be based on an understanding of the causes of environmental degradation and of the environmental impacts and cost-effectiveness of solutions, as well as the uncertainties associated with it. Policies should also contribute to greater public understanding of environmental issues through more open access to information and decision-making process. Operationalizing environmental policies, therefore, require the integration of many interrelated economic, environmental, social and cultural factors. A key policy input that arises out of, and facilitates, this understanding, is information.

3. Information as a key policy input

The need for information that is timely, accurate and 'packaged' is an important input for policy formulation and decision-making. Data, statistics and other quantitative and qualitative valuations in a variety of formats constitutes such information. This enables decision-makers to develop strategies for action, manage natural resources, prevent and control pollution, and evaluate progress made towards goals and targets. Why has such critical importance been assigned to the collection, analyses, processing and dissemination of information, with respect to UEM?

In principle, there is a need to broaden and deepen the knowledge database of scientific and technical information concerning the links between economic activities and the environment. New data and knowledge on different aspects of urban environmental change needs to be collected. Such data has to be collected with its end-use in mind, providing the appropriate information at the appropriate level. Monitoring systems and information management technologies need to be extended and improved. Long-term monitoring systems, training, easily understood technologies of information gathering, effective use of existing data, and increased speed of data transmission are some of the ways in which this can be achieved. While accessibility and relevance of environmental reporting need to be widened, there is also a need for strengthening and expanding partnerships among institutions that produce, analyze and disseminate environmental information. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) need to be used for spatially segregated data. Levels of aggregation and coverage need to be linked to different levels of decision-making and stages of implementation.

This also places emphasis on the methodology of packaging and reporting information. The aims and objectives, emphases, and language used significantly alters the quality and quantity of information being disseminated. The media used reports, print and electronic media, internet, audio and video cassettes, conferences and workshops facilitate better understanding of the issues involved, and assist in decision making.

Criticality of information needs at the international, national, regional and local levels have to be balanced by the information collection processes that complement the need and packaging of information in terms of its collection, analysis , interpretation, and reporting. Thus, information is used for the detection of changes in the environment. This is important in the identification and recognition of environmental issues and problems. It provides a basis for evaluation and decision-making. It also facilitates monitoring of policy and programme performance in the implementation stages. In order for information to play its critical role in policy development, there is a need for accuracy and speread of issues covered, adequate historical and geographical coverage, and its comparability and consistency in collection.

Effectiveness in the implementation of a policy can also be attributed to effective dissemination of information. The aim of information dissemination is public education and enlightenment, consensus-building, and the promotion of awareness. With this in mind, the quickness and periodicity of dissemination, along with its form, appropriateness and accessibility, has to be considered in dissemination.

4 An information system for urban environmental management

With the objective of colleting information that is of good quality, reliable, timely, relevant, and processed in order to facilitate the processes of urban environmental management, the following design principles need to be kept in mind when developing an appropriate information system (UN-DPCSD, 1996):

Subsidiarity: It is necessary to keep the information collection process decentralized in nature, and proximate to data collectors and users, since they best understand its use and limitations.

Responsibility: Collectors of data should be responsible for its accuracy and appropriateness. Data should also have 'meta-data' such as date, origin and conditions for access, and responsible organizations.

Transparency: Information should be freely available for all purposes and at all levels. All decision-makers should have access to the same information with highest standards of reliability.

Efficiency: Data should only be collected once, avoiding unnecessary duplication, and simplifying reporting requirements. Data once collected, should be readily and rapidly available to all users.

Economy: Investment in the system should be done in scale to the use and analysis.

Providing information at the appropriate level, to the appropriate actors is key to an efficient information system (IFEI, 1992). For example, in a policy decision-making process, scientists and resource users, researchers etc. are the actors involved in problem identification. Here information is produced and analyzed through observation, research-oriented data collection and scientific analysis. When it is necessary to generate awareness of the problem with the wider public and action is demanded, then environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community groups, the media, etc. are involved. Information here is used to draw attention to the seriousness of the problem, in order to motivate action to find a remedy. Alternative actions are formulated by policy analysts from different disciplines who work for NGOs, industry, government and universities/research institutions. In this case, information is used to determine responsibilities for problem mitigation, costs and consequences of the problems, and developing alternative solutions. Politicians and their advisors as well as industry persons decide on the course of action to be taken for which they need information to evaluate the different courses of action, based on their individual constituencies and responsibilities. Monitoring and evaluation is critical for feedback on the action. Here again, scientists, resource users, statisticians, economists, managers, NGOs etc. are involved in generating information to monitor environmental conditions and changes that occur in response to the chosen course of action.

Thus, environmental information is crucial to assess the impact of human activity on the environment. It helps in managing the natural and man-made resources in a sustainable way. Sound and sustainable decisions can be made by anticipating environmental degradation of resources and prevent costly remedial action. Progress towards achievement of development goals can also be made, assessing long-term effects of management interventions. Table 2 illustrates the relation between policy process and stages of data production.

Table 2
Environmental Information in the Policy and
Data Production Processes
Stages of Policy Process
Stage of Data Production
Monitoring and data collection Processing and analysis Dissemination
Identification and recognition of issues Detection of changes in the environment Transformation to concise information Education/enlightenment
Evaluation and decision-making Provision of basis for evaluation and decisions Identification of cause-effect, cost-benefit analysis Consensus-building
Implementation Monitoring of policy performance Evaluation of policy performance Promotion of public awareness

Source: Nishioka and Moriguchi, 1991


ESCAP (1991), The State of the Environment . Bangkok: UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific.

IFEI (1992), Proceedings of the Environmental Information Forum. Montreal, Canada: International Forum on Environmental Information. May 21-24, 1991.

Linden, Eugene (1993), "Megacities" TIME International, January 11, 1993.

Megacities 2000 (1996). Megacities Codex. (

Nick Devas and Carole Rakodi (1993), "The Urban Challenge," in Nick Devas and Carole Rakodi, (eds). Managing Fast Growing Cities: New Approaches to Urban Planning and Management in the Developing World, New York: Longman, Essex, U.K., and John Wiley & Sons.

Nishioka, Shuzo and Yuichi Moriguchi (1992) Institutional Arrangement and Environmental Information Needs. Tokyo: Center for Global Environment Research. National Institute of Environmental Studies

UN-DPCSD (1996). Report of the Workshop on Information for Sustainable Development and Earthwatch. Geneva: United Nations Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development.

UN Population Division (1995) World Urbanization Prospects: The 1994 Revision New York: The United Nations

WRI (1996), "World Resources: A Guide to the Global Environment. Special Issue on the Urban Environment" World Resources Institute - ( wr-96-97/ud_txt1.html)

Based on a paper titled "Information Systems in Urban Evironmental Management: Roles for the Internet" presented at the Second International Symposium on Urban Planning and Environment on Strategies and Methods for Improving Environmental Quality in Compact Cities. 11-14 March in Groningen, The Netherlands

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