Under a cedar tree, in a plaza in the midst of Istanbul, Turkey, I have found a peaceful spot for lunch. All about me swirls a United Nations conference. People of every color, speaking any number of languages, hustle here and there, on their way to their next important meeting.

"Let me show you art," says a tiny, middle-aged woman whose head is scarved in traditional Muslim fashion. I smile. She unfurls colorful paintings of pharaohs and slaves."Three dollars," she says. "The money goes to the Al-Amal Charitable Society of Egypt." Into my lap, she drops a notebook. It holds photos and stories of a dozen recipients of Al-Amal aid.

Here is a photo of Am Heshin, who is 53 years old. He has nine children. His family lives in one small basement room. He works as a gatekeeper at an apartment building in Cairo.

Here is a widow, Um Hassan, and her daughter Um Hashim. Um Hassan's husband was disabled, and she supported their eight children by cleaning houses. The daughter, Um Hashim, is only 22 but she has been married three times and has several children and is pregnant now. Her baby will need to be delivered by Caesarean section. Neither she nor her mother can pay the hospital.

As I leaf through the notebook and reach for my wallet, the saleswoman explains how fast the poverty is growing. "A million babies are born in Egypt every nine months." I ask her how her organization selects the families it will help. "They are mostly relatives," she says.

Later I think about her words and am confused. Did she mean they were her own relatives? Or did she mean they were related to each other? Was she saying that when you find one poor Egyptian gatekeeper he will introduce you to his sister who has eight children, who will introduce you to her pregnant daughter, who will introduce you to her third husband's mother?

Back in Salt Lake City, when I remember the United Nation's conference on the future of the world's cities, I will remember this sunny plaza. I will remember struggling to make sense of a jumble of faces, looking for a pattern in the chaotic stories of poverty and overcrowding. I will remember feeling disheartened.

Until now, most of the Earth's people have been rural people. Within the next decade, the balance of life will change. From now on, we will be city people.

By the year 2005, the majority of the people of the Earth, some three billion, will be living in cities. By 2025, five billion people will be living in cities.

According to United Nation's statistics, most of these cities will be bigger than any that exist now. Most will be in Third World countries. The U.N. General Assembly convened Habitat II to try to figure out a way to mitigate the spiritual and physical poverty of these future cities, to maximize the opportunities for the people who live there.

Istanbul will be one of these megacities. With a population of nine million today, it is likely to reach 25 million by 2025.

You can't help but wonder what it will look like then. When you visit Istanbul, you can't help but wonder if it's been getting progressively dingier.

Riding a bus through the oldest parts of Istanbul, you see a line of scarved women holding plastic water jugs. A water truck is pulled up to the curb, partially blocking the narrow road. Glancing ahead, through the windshield, you see an ancient Roman aqueduct. Its stone arches stretch across the skyline.

Once the people in this city had clean drinking water. You find yourself wondering what Istanbul was like before, in ancient times, when for a thousand years it was known as Constantinople. Then, it was the capital of the world. Then it was the center of art and architecture, commerce, culture and religion.

Modern Istanbul is still a center of commerce and culture, still historic, still the city where Europe and Asia meet. Istanbul is still fascinating. But it's been a long time since anyone called it the capital of the world. It is only glorious in parts.

The old part of the city is surrounded by miles of stone walls, built by Constantine in A.D. 330. The walls are charming and so are the vegetable gardens that border them and so are the herds of sheep that pass through their gates.

But beyond the walls is the modern part of the city, including miles of boxy run-down apartment buildings. They sport cheery tile roofs, yet their concrete walls are cracked and their tiny balconies are sagging. Like the people who live in the old city, the people in these apartments can't drink their tap water. Still, they are better off than several million others who currently live in Istanbul's outlying shantytowns - without plumbing or electricity.

Around the world there are, right now, more than 250 million city dwellers who can't drink their water. Another 450 million don't have plumbing at all, don't even have access to latrines. Human waste fouls their streets. Disease spreads.

While developed countries may have plumbing, they aren't immune from big city pollution problems. More than one billion city dwellers are breathing dangerously dirty air.

All these numbers are expected to double as the urban populations double. The governments of the world are worried. Hence, Habitat II.

Habitat II is not to be confused with Habitat I - which met 20 years ago in Vancouver to talk about the same problems: the widening gap between rich and poor, the inequities in health and education and opportunity, the denigration of the environment. But Habitat II differs from Habitat I. In Vancouver, the governments of the nations were hoping to end homelessness and guarantee health. In Istanbul, they admitted they couldn't.

One of the main purposes of Habitat II was to listen to local government and nongovernmental officials, to listen to them and to encourage them to work together to solve their own problems.

So, in addition to the several thousand U.N. delegates and several thousand journalists who have come to Habitat II, there are 500 local officials and 6,000 members of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

The NGO people are the grass-roots folks. Some of them spend their days lobbying the U.N. delegates, hanging out at the splendid hotel and conference center where the U.N. is in session.

But most of the NGO representatives congregate down the street from the U.N. session. In vast public buildings that were once used for university classes, they hold their own forum. They set up booths, pass out brochures and give lectures and slide shows, talking about life in their own communities.

At the NGO forum, the experience of the world is distilled into consumer-sized bits, except that the experiences are often too overwhelming to be understood. Take, for example, the forum in which women talked about their experiences in various civil wars.

Since the classroom had been changed from the one listed on the schedule (which happened with confusing regularity at the NGO conference), I arrived late and I arrived expecting to listen to African women describe how they started their own bank to finance their own community improvements.

The woman speaking as I walk in is African and is dressed in a tailored banker-looking suit. It takes me several minutes to comprehend what she is saying. She is not talking about finance. She is saying that the youngest and strongest men rule the refugee camps. That because she was a woman alone with little children, she was always last to get food and supplies. She waited three months for her plastic tent, she was saying - the pup tent she and her children lived in for six years.

A young woman approaches the podium and asks to be allowed to speak and asks for someone to please translate her words into English. She looks about 17, and is dressed in simple white T-shirt and blue skirt and white sneakers so clean they seem not to have touched the grimy streets outside. She is beautiful, with the huge brown eyes you see everywhere in Istanbul.

She says she is Kurdish. She says "There is a dirty war going on in this country. Forced migrations. Mystery killings." She says she wants to participate in the national struggle to make Turkey a better country, but also she wants to overcome her status as a second-class citizen.

At this point, three Turkish women behind me begin to hiss. I turn to stare, surprised that they seem angry at this pretty child. What did she say? The woman who is supposed to be translating suddenly stops. The pause seems to be intentional, as if, with time, some mysterious problem will disappear.

The translation begins again, and the women behind me don't hiss any more but one of them mutters something about this workshop being "a place for ethnic minorities to complain" and then she begins tapping her pencil.

Though it seems she's angry, I don't draw hasty conclusions about what her gestures mean. The Turks nod and shake for yes and no in ways opposite from our gestures. Perhaps tapping a pencil and hissing are signs of polite support. A man in the audience raises his hand and asks the young woman to stop listing atrocities and talk instead about what her people are doing to help themselves.

"What steps are you as women taking to educate yourselves and teach other Kurdish women about birth control?" he asks. Self-help seems to be the theme of this conference, so I am still not sure hostilities are rising - not until a woman rushes past my seat in a desperate scramble to get to the front of the classroom and grab a microphone.

Her accent sounds more German than Turkish when she yells at the man, "We are not talking here about everyday forms of discrimination, about things so common as saying, `Good morning.' We are talking about people being bombed and killed." Though I don't understand her analogy, I do understand she is defending the Kurds.

So the man was apparently criticizing with his questions. With your large families, he was telling this young woman, you Kurds are a burden on the world.

Then, a few days later, on a tour bus, we get another glimpse of the same sentiment: When resources are strained, compassion is strained.

Our guide is giving us a 10-minute summary of the political situation in Turkey today. She defines the Kurds as "uneducated people who have eight or 10 children - it is not unusual for one father to have 35 children - but 10 is normal. And they live in a house with all their children and their livestock, their goats and sheep. In the house."

She says the Kurds are moving to the cities by the thousands every month. By the thousands. To escape the terrorists and the Turkish army. To seek work.

She doesn't come right out and say it, "I don't want any more neighbors, least of all them." But she does sound happy, later, when she reports on a new dam being completed in Eastern Turkey, a dam named after Kemal Ataturk. The water will allow more poor farmers to stay on their land.

Simon Li came to the conference from Hong Kong. Hong Kong is the magical and exciting place where he grew up and married and raised two children. You can meet 100 people at this conference, from 100 different countries, and not meet anyone more bullish on city life than Simon Li.

He is the senior assistant director of housing for Hong Kong city. The government housing authority is currently providing homes to more than half of Hong Kong's six million residents. He emotes satisfaction as he explains how well it all works: His job is totally under control. The managers who work for him are totally efficient.

He oversees hundreds of public high-rises that contain hundreds of thousands of middle-income and poor families. He grows increasingly animated as he explains the philosophy, the rules and the social programs under which they all live in harmony.

Families each get a two-bedroom, one-bathroom flat - a combination living room/kitchen totalling less that 700 square feet. "Small by American standards," he admits. Older couples live in half the space. Those who have the means may buy their apartments at a low rate, provided they don't sell for at least 10 years. Those who can't buy, pay rent based on their income.

These communities are "sustainable," says Li. People feel neighborly and their mutual pride keeps the public projects from turning into slums the way they often do in the United States. Li explains how each floor of each building is organized into a political unit. Each floor elects representatives to a legislative body. Everyone has a say in planning the festivals and governing the community.

If he wanted to, Li could retire next year. A civil servant need only work 400 months to earn a full pension and Li's 400 months are nearly up. Still, he relishes the responsibility for all those families in all those high-rise homes. He can't decide to quit.

His parents and his siblings emigrated to Vancouver 20 years ago. Li visits regularly. "My brother says my father's smile is wider when all of us are in the same room." Yet Li knows, whenever he retires, he and his wife will not be joining the others in Canada. Hong Kong is too wonderful to leave.

Not that he doesn't appreciate the beauty of British Columbia. He likes nature, he explains. He and his family vacation in it almost every year. They've been to Yellowstone and Jasper and other national parks in North America. And in Australia, too, he's seen much beauty. His 20-year-old daughter is a college student there.

But he has something to confide to you about the Australians, and he looks to see who is nearby before he says it. Here he is sitting in an airport, waiting for a U.N.-arranged tour of Turkish archaeological sites. Because he is at a U.N. conference, he can't be sure of the national origin of the people who are sitting around him. Because he is at a U.N. conference, he is under a certain onus to be respectful of all peoples.

"I respect all people," he says, loudly. Then he goes on to say he respects Australians least of any people in the world. Certainly their wilderness is lovely, but how important is that in the overall scheme of things? Their close proximity to countryside appears to be affecting their pace of life. The natural world seems to sustain their souls in a way Li finds offensive. "They are just so laid back," he says. "I can't stand that." Says Li, proudly, "I am a city person."

Ten thousand people have come to this conference - each with his or her own each own idea of what the families in the cities of the future will need. Each with his or her own truth.

There are too many truths, actually, too many opportunities to learn. At the NGO conference, there are more than 20 two-hour workshops going on simultaneously, maybe 200 fascinating places to be all in one day, if you count all the lectures, booths and art shows and music and film and dance concerts. There are many problems to learn about, and even some solutions.

The array of opportunities is dizzying, and complicated by language barriers. You could learn about straw-bale construction in one classroom, or go next door and hear African women talking about problems with inheritance laws, or go down the hall and hear animal rights advocates talk about what street life will be like for dogs and cats in the cities of the future. You could learn about water, child labor, or poverty in Pakistan. You could hear Turks talk about what it's like to be Christian or Jewish in a country that's 99 percent Muslim.

In the Haghia Sophia, one the oldest surviving churches in Christiandom, you can rest your mind from the busyness of Habitat II. The Haghia Sophia is a dark and mysterious cavern, a marvel of architecture. It was a Christian church first, then a Moslem mosque, now open to all.

When Constantine had it built, in A.D. 325, women were not allowed on the main floor sanctuary. When they came to worship it was by the side staircase. In the farthest reaches of the women's balconies, the mosaics are being restored.

Early Christians were not sure about these mosaics. The guidebook says they fought over the question: Is it idolatry to gaze at these representations?

In 1453, when Mehmet conquered Constantinople, he brought his own truth. It is said he knelt at the door before he entered the church to claim it for Mohammed. It is said he felt respect. Perhaps it was out of respect that he didn't order the mosaics to be destroyed. They were merely plastered over.

Searching for the restoration project, you come upon it in a dim corner. At first all you see are tiles. Thousands of tiles, in swirls of gold and blue and white. As you stare, suddenly, the pattern comes clear. You see Christ's face.

Weeks later, thinking about the conference, this is just one of the memories. Looking at photos, thinking of all the people you met and waiting for it all to start swirling into sense, you realize the pattern is never going to be any clearer than it is right now.

There are only the individual pieces. There is Simon Li, and next to him his lovely daughter who looks Chinese and sounds Australian. And there is a man from Romania. And there is a woman from the Philippines. And over there, a woman from California who has come to Istanbul to learn how to bundle up the chaff from a rice harvest and build herself a house.

And over here is a man from Ohio who knows Bella Abzug to be evil. And over here is Abzug herself, meeting a monsignor from the Holy See, and mistrusting him fully as much as the man from Ohio mistrusts her.

And here is a woman from England who is helping to build houses in the poorest villages of India. And here is a Hawaiian man who has traveled the world with the U.S. Air Force, who spent a lifetime collecting treasures that recently were stolen. What does it matter anyway, he says, they were just things. His best memories, anyway, are of the food he's tasted.

A U.N. conference is supposed to help us make sense of the world, to put in place a plan for the future of cities. And there were some beautiful pieces at Habitat II, some stories of success.

Still, you come away thinking: The cities will be too big. The problems will be too complex. That there will be universal harmony and beauty is hard to imagine. But there are people in the world working toward that vision.