UN Economist Barbara Ward writing in 1974 on Vancouver, cities and income inequality
Barbara Ward is the under-celebrated economist whose work with the UN drove the formation of UN Habitat and provided the basis for its founding document, The Vancouver Declaration. In preparation for Habitat ’76 (or the UN Habitat Conference on Human Settlements as it was officially known) she wrote a small book outlining the context and tasks for the conference. It was titled Human Settlements: Crisis and Opportunity and as you can see, its cover shows a 1974 aerial shot of Vancouver. The book was followed by the popular Home of Man in 1976. Ward’s approach to cities is humane, always circling back to the plight of any settlement’s poorest and weakest. I have included a fairly long excerpt from the book below because of the counterpoint it provides to the sort of economistic urbanism we seem to have fallen into in Vancouver and elsewhere.
It’s an unpleasant irony that a city like Vancouver, which is overrun with luxury cars worth a quarter million dollars, also sufferse some of the worst child poverty in the country. What’s striking here is that in 1974 there was evidently far less inhibition around using terms like “redistribution” than there is today.
If you don’t have a lot of time, just read the last paragraph. From Human Settlements: Crisis and Opportunity, 1974:
“A settlement exists, by definition, to satisfy human needs. Group of public buildings, places of owrk, commercial premises become part of “settlements” only when people find shelter among them and begin to build a community. In environmental terms, a settlement is a niche or habitt and its success must be measured by the degree to which it satisfies the full range of its inhabitants’ needs. But this is a not a straightforward definition. Human beings are a species that has left far behind the instinctive mechanisms of blind survival. They consciously assess their own needs and plan for their own future. They can feel the “need” for almost as many things as they can imagine, and these are limitless.
Nor would one wish for any great uniformity. Among the glories of man’s habitat is its infinite variety. Vancouver itself, the site of the Conference, has grown from a forest clearing to a city of nearly one million in 80 years. It includes Canada’s largest Chinese community as well as Japanese, Italian, Ukrainian, Portuguese, German, native Indian, and Caribbean groups. Each has a particular culture, a particular hierarchy of values to preserve. Each seeks to safeguard them with all the greater care because pervasive elements in the new technological order – buildings, transport, packaged food, utilities – have a highly standardizing effect.
Yet there are basic biological needs – food, particularly protein in babyhood, water, shelter, health – which are common to all communities and, in most societies, must be earned by an adequate income from work.
one could argue that if growth and survival are the hallmarks of biological success, a species which is growing steadily by 2.5 percent a year is clearly not a biological failure. Yet this is not a satisfactory index. The same rate of growth, extrapolated over time, becomes increasingly pathological as it approaches the limits of resources needed for further survival. And long before such limits appear – indeed, now, in the seventies – whole communities are failing to secure even a modest biological minimum for their growing numbers. Estimates suggest, for instance, that 30 percent of India’s nearly 600 million live below a poverty line which itself registers no more than sheer survival.
That is the firs and most fundamental need in human settlements is to secure an adequate minimum biological standard of food, health and shelter may seem obvious. Who could dispute that people must live before they can prosper? But in fact, in much of the world’s experience of entering the new technological era, this primary need has not been obvious and has been only incidentally the aim of the emerging system. Growth and success in the economy have been measured in tons of steel and kilowatt hours of energy, of cattle on the hoof and grain deliveries. The production of all such goods and services (GNP) is divided by the number of people and an average per capita figure emerges, which is the nearest most plans get to the idea of basic income.
But these average incomes would be the equivalent of adequate basic incomes only if the economic system automatically, of itself, distributed the gains of development according to some principle of accepted human need. No such automatic redistribution takes place. In planned economies, minimum standards have to be built into the plan.
All the elaborate instruments of taxation, insurance an welfare which are required to shift resources from rich to poor underline the problem of distribution in developed market economies. Even so, pensioners, the aged, widows, handicapped people, unskilled and migrant workers can slip below the poverty line. In many developing societies, the mechanisms of redistribution are still rudimentary or non-existent. Even though the economic indices of Gross National Product may register gains of up to 10 percent a year, it is beginning to be discovered that in some societies only the wealthiest 10 percent of the people profit from this expansion. Perhaps 40 percent may remain as poor as ever. In some societies, the percentage growing even poorer actually goes up. These are the “marginal” men and women in rundown rural hovels, on squatter settlements in the big cities – in bidonvilles, favellas, calampas, butees, shantytowns.
The name changes. The desolation is the same.
Thus, at the centre of any policy to satisfy human needs in the environment of human settlements, there must be a strategy to meet the basic physical needs of these masses at the bottom of the human pyramid. A new awareness of the critical role of employment and income distribution in any healthy process of modernization is beginning to make itself felt in both the theory and practice of development. Provided that the Conference gives full priority to fundamental human needs and underlines the policies which make it possible to realize a socially just and physically acceptable environment in human settlements, it can play an essential part in crystallizing and extending the new mood of concern for basic income. If, on the contrary, the Conference were to consider settlements without this fundamental dimension of human need, if it were to investigate their possible lack of aesthetics or functional convenience or cultural opportunities while ignoring the mass of misery festering at their base, one would have to say, adopting the contemptuous judgment of Tom Paine, that it “pities the plumage and forgets the dying bird.”