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Clarence Shubert

Almost everywhere in the world, traditional family structures are disintegrating in the face of rapid urbanisation. The pattern of a limited and fragmented homelife is having a devastating effect on family and community systems. High rates of divorce, child abuse and neglect, teenage pregnancy, violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, crime, and suicide are evident consequences.

In order to afford shelter, higher education for children and adequate health care, both parents are forced to work outside the home. The family's primary functions of education, recreation, child care, entertainment, and food production, preparation and consumption are left to the market and public bureaucracies, creating a need for even more income to pay for basic necessities and higher taxes. Children are subsequently cared for, if at all, by nurseries, day-care centres and schools. Impoverished, single parent, female headed households are becoming the norm.

Parents become providers and night guardians with little time, energy or encouragement to do more than function as bread winners in the market. The modern urban home becomes little more than sleep and watch television - its most important characteristic its location in relation to work, school, shops and other amenities. It is a stark contrast to the days of extended families and the mutual support they traditionally provided.

The usual response to this breakdown is a call for more centralised, publicly funded social services and police security, essentially to fill the gap left by disintegrating family and community structures. There is another, less obvious answer, however. Create cities that restore the function of family and community, while reducing family dependence on income from jobs that take parents ever further from home for ever longer periods.

Obviously, the burdens of caring for children, the elderly and disabled cannot entirely be shifted back to individual families. Neither can women be expected to bear the full burden. Yet in many countries a strong and cohesive family is seen as the natural and most desirable institution to care for children, the disabled and the elderly. Families in turn need the support of strong and cohesive communities. Such a perspective leads to a more holistic approach to dealing with the accelerating social and environmental crises of cities struggling to meet growing demands on already failing environmental, waste disposal, transportation, energy, social service and water systems.

Increasing population densities are pressing the expansion of urbanisation and its attendant problems ever further into rural areas. What we now need is a corresponding "ruralisation" of urban areas, a new vision of cities organised into networks of urban villages.

In this vision, each urban village would recycle its sewage, solid waste and even air through fishponds, gardens and green areas to sustainably produce much of the food, clean water, fresh air and recreational spaces it requires. Urban agriculture, aquaculture and the intensive recycling of wastes would provide new sustainable livelihood opportunities, while renewing family and community ties, allowing for greater sharing of family reponsibilities among men and women, and decentralising urban management.

Working out of the home would once again become common, with traditional cottage industries existing side-by-side with agricultural and waste recycling activities, and the electronic cottage industries of the high technology age. Family support services such as community-based daycare, family counselling, schools, family health services, and multipurpose community centres - particularly to serve youth, the elderly and children - would be common, making these integral community functions and sources of employment nearer to home.

There would continue to be a division of work and a diversity of lifestyles. However, all households would become more involved in primary environmental care. Recycling of household wastes would require separation within the home. Community management and leadership would become more important as the urban village takes on many of the functions now performed by central municipal governments. Civic education and communal responsibilities would also become more important. Many households would combine salaried employment with subsistence food production, waste recycling, and voluntary community service - leading to a return to the multifunctional home.

The vision of the family-friendly city, with the home and its immediate neighbourhood once again the centre of life, already exists in some pockets or suburbs of many cities in Asia. Government policies need to proactively support smaller neighbourhood schools and health facilities, and recreation areas and green spaces that also serve to recycle waste and fresh air, clean water and food. Organising cities around urban villages will require changes in the nature of housing, services, and transportation. It will also require a significant reorientation of municipal services systems to encourage and facilitate greater commitment and involvement of people in management and voluntary work within their communities.

Clarence Shubert is Senior Adviser, Urban Management Programme, Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Prepared and disseminated by the People-Centred Development Forum based on his article in Urban Voices No. 2, February 1994.

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