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OPINION: It’s time to rekindle the spirit of Stockholm 1972

by Maimunah Mohd Sharif | UN-Habitat
Tuesday, 31 May 2022 04:32 GMT

People walk past spring blooms in central London, Britain, April 26, 2022. REUTERS/Toby Melville

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Advocates for urban and natural sustainability should remember that the landmark environmental conference expected them to work together

Maimunah Mohd Sharif is Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-Habitat

In 1972, as a young girl growing up in Malaysia, I spent much of my time learning from my father how to net fish from a river near our home.

We were far from Stockholm, where world leaders were holding historic talks on the environment. But as rural people of modest means, we understood the value of our river. Fish were our primary source of protein and fishing was our way of life. We didn’t need a global conference to tell us the importance of nature.

Through the twist and turns of life I obtained a scholarship to Cardiff, Wales to study - of all things - urban planning.

I returned to Malaysia and applied my newfound skills as a town planner in the City of Penang. Twenty years later, I went on to serve as mayor of the same city and, in 2018, to lead the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-Habitat.

Throughout my career, ensuring development does not come at the cost of the environment has been one of my primary aims. As they say, you can take the girl out of the village, but you cannot take the village out of the girl.

Re-reading the official report on that landmark event in 1972 reminds me that I am not alone. The importance of harmony between the natural environment and the built environment was critical to Stockholm.

Its recommendations covered the environmental planning and management of human settlements and the environmental aspects of national resource management. The "human environment” in the event’s title meant a framework of action for both the built and natural environments.

The United Nations therefore established two institutions – the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1973 and UN-Habitat in 1978 - to implement the Action Plan.

Member States may have renewed their commitments to these mandates over the past 50 years, but I fear that we may have lost the spirit of Stockholm.

The natural environment and built environment, as movements, have drifted apart. These mandates are often pursued as separate trajectories, rather than as one course with a common purpose.

At its root, this drift is about deeply held sentiments.

For many environmentalists, the city is the problem. Fast and unsustainable expansion of the built environment is the source of many of the world’s evils. Better to focus on the 80 per cent of the world’s land mass not occupied by human settlements.

For many urbanists, the environment is merely the third leg of the stool. Better to focus on social equality and urban prosperity, with green technology as an add-on. Manage human settlements, then deal with natural resource management.

While my characterization may seem exaggerated, such sentiments are real and have been allowed over the years to manifest in our institutions, creating deeply siloed thinking.

We stray from Stockholm at our peril. Never has the fusion of the natural and built environments been more important.

Protecting biodiversity in a rapidly urbanizing world is predicated on how we regulate the conversion of land from rural to urban use. Reducing pollution, especially marine pollution, and achieving carbon neutrality depends on how we plan and manage human settlements.

As the international community reconvenes in Stockholm on 2-3 June to mark 50 years of multilateral environmentalism, we would do well to learn from to the human settlement of 980,000 people hosting the event.

In that era, Sweden’s capital was among the most polluted municipalities in Europe. Part of the legacy of the 1972 conference was to inspire Stockholm’s ecological reformation. Challenges remain, but it has made great strides in lowering its carbon footprint and radically reducing pollution. It has strengthened social equality and environmental sustainability.

Stockholm is far from the only such case. For cities all over the world, there are not two trajectories: development and the environment are intricately intertwined.

I may be guilty of nostalgia about fishing by that river as a young girl in Malaysia. Yet it grounded me and continues to shape my understanding of how I view development and nature. 

In this sense, Stockholm is no different. We may be nostalgic about the 1972 gathering but it continues to provide clear direction.

How we manage natural resources, control pollutants, and protect our planet depends on how we plan and manage human settlements. Stockholm remains our North Star for development and the environment.

We must never lose sight of that.