A database for the global grassroots


FLAGS FROM Brazil, Argentina, India, the Ivory Coast, the United States and nations across all continents flash onto your computer screen. But don't expect stories of the grandeur of nation-states.

This program -- "Best Practices for Human Settlements" -- is about the global grassroots. Available now on CD-ROM or the Internet, it focuses on what people in cities across the world have to tell about the civic partnerships they've formed to boost entrepreneurship and job creation, fight homelessness, protect the environment, advance women and educate children.

This cyberspace system may prove the most lasting legacy of Habitat II -- the United Nations-sponsored world summit of cities -- held in Istanbul in June. By providing names and telephone numbers and Internet addresses of local "doers" it gives civic leaders a new way to keep communicating and exchanging experience.

In Fortelaza, Brazil, a poverty-stricken city of 2.5 million, a new wave of micro-enterprises and housing construction has stemmed from a program of self-help planning and civic engagement of residents of shantytowns.

The government of Tilburg, in the Netherlands, has worked with citizens, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, to establish accountability measures on the city's performance in assuring adequate housing, safety, traffic control and environmental protection.

A self-help bank, formed 22 years ago in India by 4,000 self-employed women working as hawkers, vendors, service providers and manual laborers, has grown into a massive lender of working capital.

In New York, Banana Kelly, a community development corporation born in the South Bronx's desperate years of fire and abandonment of the 1970s, has leveraged $100 million in reinvestment. It has rehabilitated or constructed 2,500 units of affordable housing, assisted 125 small businesses, helped hundreds of youth gain construction skills.

Banana Kelly was one of 12 projects recognized as a "Best Practice" by a Habitat II international jury. At Istanbul in June, Banana Kelly veteran leader Yolanda Rivera said there was jubilation in her community in learning of the award -- the first international award an American neighborhood has received.

"It means a great deal," she added, "that the award came to the South Bronx, long used as an image of all that was bad about cities, today resurrected, a beacon of what's possible."

The U.N.'s idea of recognizing "best practices" can be tracked to a small New York-based nonprofit, the Megacities Project, founded in 1987 by Janice Perlman, a former University of California professor. With affiliates in 18 of the world's largest metropolises, Megacities was years ahead of its time in championing the idea that massive metropolises can be decent environments by tapping -- and exchanging -- the problem-solving skills of citizens, communities and their city governments.

Habitat II lacked funding to create a global database of the

entries, but the New York-based Together Foundation, headed by Ella Cisneros, a Venezuelan businesswoman, stepped in with funding. With the foundation's financial support, based primarily Megacities methodology and criteria, the database was assembled in time for unveiling at Istanbul.

Fresh ideas

Many of the best-practice cases, says Nicholas You, head of the U.N.'s Nairobi-based Best Practices and Local Leadership Program, were so fresh that experts in their field weren't aware of them. "We're convinced," he insists, "that this is only the top of the iceberg, that there are tens of thousands of initiatives that communities and citizen groups are undertaking."

Now an international committee of stakeholders -- local authorities, community-building institutions, and donors -- has been set up to decide how the database is to be maintained and improved.

An early challenge, says Ms. Perlman, will be how to move beyond disseminating best practices to actual hands-on transfers in other communities around the globe.

Habitat II has, however, created a worldwide network of civic entrepreneurs without precedent in world history. With the Best Practices database, combined with the fast-spreading communications capacity of the Internet, a first-ever opportunity exists for community and city leaders to get in touch, stay in touch and keep learning from each other.

Neil R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 8/05/96

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