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Sintana Vergara's blog

Global youth assert their visions for the city of 2025

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“What attributes do you want your city to possess in 2025?”

As the share of the global population living in cities soars beyond 50%, answering this question is central for sustainable development. It is also central to Warren Evans, Senior Advisor at the World Bank, who is leading a study on what role the World Bank should play in sustainable development in 2025. But he agreed with us that it’s a question too often posed to senior decision makers. To instead find out what youth want their cities to look like – after all, they will be the ones in charge by then – Julianne and I ran a series of participatory workshops with professional and low-income youth, aged 15 to 30, to solicit their responses. We held at least three workshops in each of the four cities we visited – Tokyo, Manila, Bangkok, and Washington DC – with 10-20 participants per session. The workshops were comprised of three activities:

  1. Describe your city: in a word. Participants shared a word or a phrase defining where they were from.

What Katherine Boo’s book tells us about the modern city: garbage has more mobility than citizens do

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Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. Random House, 2012.

Mumbai Slum, Girl on SwingKatherine Boo’s book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” digs deep into life in a Mumbai undercity. The author escapes the dichotomies that roll off our tongues when we speak of places that are replete with disparity; instead she spends seven years interviewing and observing, and brings us a story of life, hope, and despair in Annawadi, a slum precariously perched between an international airport and a sewage pond. What emerges is a sensitive, careful, complex portrait of characters that use the means at their disposal – hard work, political connections, lies, or prayers – to climb over the high walls that separate their city from the rest of Mumbai.

Using trash as a thread to tell the story, Boo illustrates both the feudal nature of life in Annawadi and the absolute segregation – the boundaries, to use Richard Sennett’s term – between the slum residents and those who live on the other side of the great big wall dividing the slum from the international airport. The narration is centered on Abdul and his family, who make money by selling recyclable materials from the city’s garbage. Their relative wealth has afforded them a position above the trash pickers’ – they own a small storage facility that allows them to purchase waste from collectors and sell it to waste dealers.

From one billion cars to one billion bicycles

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Bike path in New York City

In 1993, when I was 10 years old, my family took a trip to Beijing, where the large boulevards provided us with an image that seemed reversed: bicycles everywhere, punctuated by the occasional car. The young and old rode nearly identical two-wheeled machines to get where they needed to, and the internal combustion engines were sidelined, weaving their way through an army of peddlers. At that time, writes Kristof in 1988, 76% of road space in China’s capital was taken up by bicycles – and one in every two people owned a bicycle (that’s 5.6 million bikes for 10 million people).

Fast forward 20 years: Beijing’s traffic patterns are impressive for a very different reason. Cars now clog the streets, slowing down rush hour traffic to 9 miles per hour, and bicycles have all but disappeared. Chinese consumers have overwhelmingly embraced the car - from 1990 to 2000, their number increased from 1.1 to 6 million (a 445% leap). The hunger for cars is growing; China is now home to over 78 million cars, of which 6.5 million are in Beijing alone.

Collaborative consumption – a trend for the young, the hip, the urban

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Moving from California to Washington DC, I did not expect to find revolution; but I have. Fellow city-dwellers are overthrowing old models of consumption (through which their cities became extractors and importers of natural resources and exporters of waste products) by simply changing their habits. One by one, urban citizens are choosing collaborative consumption instead, to save money, resources, and time.

Though sharing is not new – in fact, historically, people lived and consumed resources in groups – it is an innovation in the modern city. A diverse set of sharing mechanisms has sprouted – for-profit, non-profit, informal, and formal – many of which use the web to match supply and demand.

Instead of purchasing cars, consumers are using car-sharing companies (like Zipcar), which allow them to rent vehicles by the hour, or stopping by to get a ride from the Casual Carpool in San Francisco or the Slug Line in Washington DC, two informal, citizen-organized carpool sites that match car-free commuters with drivers looking to enter High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes and save on toll fares.

Spaceship city: drinking wastewater, and going back to the future

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Seattle, WA

One of the marvels of the modern city is its ability to make waste disappear. Along with electricity, water, and the internet, sophisticated waste networks allow residents to discard or flush away any signs of urban consumption. But this may be changing. As cities increasingly face the prospect of droughts and uncertainty about future water availability due to climate change, a new source of water is now being explored that might prompt city residents to pay close attention to its origin and fate: their toilets.

Wastewater reuse – known as “reclaimed water” to proponents, and “toilet to tap” to critics – is used to augment supply in two prime water-scarce environments: spaceships and urban areas. Though resistance to wastewater reuse is mostly psychological, citizen’s disgust is balanced by three realities: