Stockholm+50: Looking Back at the 1972 Urban Event that Changed the World

Not all UN-HABITAT staff and partners know that it all started there, in Stockholm, fifty years ago. It was a splendid June, the early summer sun welcomed us all day and night, the city looked like a precious black pearl reflected in blue waters, trams streamed effortlessly on the city’s old streets, sailboats and ferries floated happily from and to the countless islands where residents enjoyed their summer weekends, and an important global conference was on its way. This magical atmosphere of beauty, tranquillity and expectation helped everybody imagine that the sun would never set over the hopes of achieving a historical pact for a planet as a safe and healthy home for all of humanity.

The international reputation of the host country contributed greatly to nurture these hopes. Stockholm, of course, had been chosen, like host cities of major international events, at the end of the usual diplomatic quid-pro-quo negotiations. But Sweden and its capital city seemed to all of us the ideal host for a global conference on such a new and exciting theme as the Human Environment. Its voters and its policies had shown that it was indeed possible to reconcile economic growth and capitalism with an efficient and caring welfare system. A very pronounced progressive tax system had been accepted by all Swedes as the means to achieve social equality in the country and make poverty a relic of the past. Sweden was famous for its model housing solutions (Vällingby alone was then a choice pilgrimage for all of the world’s urbanists, architects and planners). The country had also embraced a generous immigration policy, and made all efforts to integrate newcomers from all corners of the world. Its diplomacy was engaged everywhere in pursuing peace and international cooperation. The Prime Minister of Sweden at that time was Olof Palme, a man respected by the whole world for his dedication to peace and progress and whose brutal assassination fourteen years later put him in the same category of immortals as another great Swede, the Secretary General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld.

So, the venue was as important as the occasion. And the occasion was that, for the first time, the member states of the UN had chosen the planet’s environment as a theme for a global Conference.

But the event had to face a number of challenges, as well as profound controversies and contradictions.  The Vietnam war was still raging. The People’s Republic of China, that had recently replaced Taiwan at the UN, was in the midst of its “cultural revolution”. The Arab countries were up in arms about the occupied Palestinian territories. Important member states which drew much of their wealth from the extraction of fossil fuel, or the exploitation of the oceans were certainly not expected to go along with any proposals imperilling their national income. The rich countries had a wide reach but a very tight wallet. And the Cold War was still polarizing the world in two factions, with countries choosing one or the other global power for protection, legitimization and assistance.

In addition, a different kind of confrontation was looming over the horizon. Not all developing countries had chosen sides during the Cold War. In 1961, a vast number of them had formed the non-aligned movement, whose political agenda could be summarized as a commitment to ensure “the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of non-aligned countries” in their “struggle against imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference or hegemony as well as against great power and bloc politics.”

Indeed, the achievement of independence by so many ex-colonies, particularly in Africa, had simply marked a transition from direct domination to other forms of indirect political and economic control. Its major manifestation was authority over the prices of agricultural commodities, a main source of income for mostly rural countries. Foreign aid was often used as a tool to secure political and economic allegiance to the donor and its more independent form, multilateral aid, far too scarce. In short, the Global South had good reason to eye any global initiative by the North with suspicion. And the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment looked like one of them.

The political process leading to the Conference had risen out of fear rather than hope. Ironically, it had been “development”, interpreted in the rich North as unbridled economic growth, had triggered environmental disruption and as a consequence the birth of a global environmental movement, particularly vivacious in the United States. And in fact, it had been a conservative administration in that country, concerned with avoiding an environmental Vietnam, to be the first one to adopt highly visible environmental measures, such as the Clean Air Act, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The preparatory process of the Conference had been dominated by the industrialized countries of the West, and here lay the biggest contradiction. On one hand, they had to meet the expectations of their own environmental constituencies; on the other, their common goal was to discourage any action jeopardizing their own lifestyles and economic goals. The Conference Secretary-General Maurice Strong, a Canadian who had made a vast fortune in the oil industry, was ideologically linked to that front; on the other hand, he was determined to guarantee the Conference the best possible outcome.  In essence, the prevailing goal of the industrialized North was not, as one could imagine, to find a concerted way to reduce pollution and conserve resources. It was, at the contrary, the fear of the environmental ravages that could originate from the exploding population growth of the global South particularly when they would reach the same level of “development” (and pollution) of the “industrialized world”.

The Eastern block only acknowledged environmental disruption as a glaring example of the internal contradictions of capitalism while claiming the issue did not arise within its borders. In the end, the Warsaw Pact countries all boycotted Stockholm in protest about the exclusion of Eastern Germany. Once this important element was lost to the Conference, the only way to “save Stockholm” was to pay closer attention to the expectations of the developing countries.

Fortunately, the People’s Republic of China, despite having been excluded by the Conference’s four–year preparatory process, decided to participate. India, unlike all industrial countries and also responding to pleas from the Conference Secretary-General, decided to participate at the highest level. And it really mattered that its Prime Minister was at the time Indira Gandhi, a person of remarkable charisma and authority. It was Indira who took the lead of the developing countries and imposed a non-negotiable principle: “Poverty is the Worst Polluter”. This was an extraordinary development, and one that gave Stockholm an unexpected visibility. (Incidentally, Fidel Castro would reiterate the same point twenty years later, at the “Rio Summit”).

This evolution justifies the title “Stockholm 1972: a Happy Remembrance”. This title is not a claim that the Conference “was a success”. You can have global conferences with no controversies and inconsequential action plans, and use harmonious and meaningless consensus as a proof of triumph. The reason for regarding Stockholm as a momentous event is that it revealed and discussed the huge contradiction between the desire of the more successful countries to “save the planet” at the expense of population and economic growth on the part of everybody else and the determination of the so-called developing countries to combat poverty and improve their standard of living. The North was concerned with curbing population growth in the South as a strategy to limit global pollution levels and resource needs; the South was preoccupied with obtaining the financial assistance to fuel its economic growth. If poverty was the “greatest polluter”, the best answer to the problem was to eliminate poverty. These issues would dominate the international agenda for the next fifty years. Hence, Stockholm+50 is no reason for celebrating great breakthroughs, but rather one for celebrating Stockholm 1972 as the time and place when these issues became a global terrain of contention and in this sense, “an event that changed the world”.

In the end, it can be legitimately argued that it was the People’s Republic of China that saved the Conference. Backed by the vision of Premier Zhou Enlai, its delegation did not insist in revising the elaborate Plan of Action that had been drafted prior to the People’s Republic admission to the UN and simply demanded a few changes and additions to the 27 Principles of the Conference declaration. Because of this, all documents were adopted by consensus. No specific targets were adopted, but all agreed on a number of welcomed expectations. And as it had been agreed previously, a new institution was added to the UN Secretariat – the United Nations Environment Programme. Western countries were to contribute generously to this new UN creature, on the assumption that the new programme would focus on environmental awareness and global monitoring of environmental progress, or lack thereof.

The importance of human settlements was adequately recognized in Stockholm and would lead the way to a human settlements conference. The Conference’s very framework comprised six themes, with the first of them being “Planning and Management of Human settlements for Environmental Quality”. This portion of the Stockholm action plan contained eighteen detailed recommendations covering a wide number of operational priorities. From an international point of view, the importance of a concerted effort of existing agencies and programmes to support the efforts of developing countries was stressed.  However, the so-called donor countries, already committed to the new UNEP secretariat, wanted anything but another new agency to handle human settlements. Despite the creation of a “fund” to provide seed capital to the developing countries, all other recommendations highlighted the need for existing entities to devote more attention to human settlements planning and management from their respective areas of responsibility. The emphasis of technical co-operation programmes was on the regional level. Given the interest expressed by Canada, the idea of a United Nations Conference on Human settlements was recognized. However, the formulation was exceedingly cautious: a Conference/Demonstration on Experimental Human Settlements should be held under the auspices of the United Nations in order to provide for co-ordination and the exchange of information and to demonstrate to world public opinion the potential of this approach by means of a display of experimental projects”.

In Vancouver, four years later, things would go differently. Habitat: United Nations Conference on Human Settlementswould adopt a remarkable plan of action and create a new entity to implement it. But the enthusiasm and the hopes that had animated Stockholm were not quite there anymore. In particular, support for the new United Nations for Human Settlements entity would never be up to the enormous challenges facing it. But it’s Stockholm 72’s merit to have identified these challenges and proposed vigorous actions to act on them. Ignoring them did not consign us a better world.


Pietro Garau

Pietro Garau is an Italian architect/planner who devoted his professional life to the pursuit of urban planning as a tool for achieving social equity and sustainable development. He was head of research at UN-Habitat and co-led international task forces for the implementation of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and for the United Nations Habitat III Conference. He taught urban policy at Sapienza Università di Roma. He is a co-founder of the Rome Biennale of Public Space and the principal author of the Biennale’s Charter of Public Space and of UN-Habitat’s Global Public Space Toolkit. He participated in the four United Nations Conferences dealing with human settlements, starting from the Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden, in June 1972.

This article is dedicated to the late Göte Svenson (former deputy minister of housing) and Sture Person (international department of the Swedish Ministry of the Environment, Swedish focal point for UNEP for the Rio Summit preparatory process), two remarkable Swedes who devoted their life to the cause of international co-operation for the improvement of the social and environmental aspects of human settlements,  with particular regard to the needs of the poorest countries.


Principles of the Stockholm Declaration:[11]

Human rights must be asserted, apartheid and colonialism condemned

Natural resources must be safeguarded

The Earth’s capacity to produce renewable resources must be maintained

Wildlife must be safeguarded

Non-renewable resources must be shared and not exhausted

Pollution must not exceed the environment’s capacity to clean itself

Damaging oceanic pollution must be prevented

Development is needed to improve the environment

Developing countries therefore need assistance

Developing countries need reasonable prices for exports to carry out environmental management

Environment policy must not hamper development

Developing countries need money to develop environmental safeguards

Integrated development planning is needed

Rational planning should resolve conflicts between environment and development

Human settlements must be planned to eliminate environmental problems

Governments should plan their own appropriate population policies

National institutions must plan development of states’ natural resources

Science and technology must be used to improve the environment

Environmental education is essential

Environmental research must be promoted, particularly in developing countries

States may exploit their resources as they wish but must not endanger others

Compensation is due to states thus endangered

Each nation must establish its own standards

There must be cooperation on international issues

International organizations should help to improve the environment

Weapons of mass destruction must be eliminated

[ The Principles, briefly revisited ]

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