Across the world, countries facing rapid, and often unplanned, urbanization deal with a number of challenges that affect their growing populations. The issues range from a lack of access to decent housing and basic services such as sanitation, water, healthcare, electricity and transport. This has adverse impacts on the quality of urban living. It also undermines the efforts of cities to achieve their full economic potential.
In the many slums I have visited in Latin America, Asia and Africa, I am always struck by the resourcefulness and resilience of residents. Slum dwellers face many hardships in their daily life – low incomes, overcrowded living conditions in high risk areas such as flood zones or steep hillsides, and limited access to clean water, sanitation, transport or solid waste services.
These challenges are only made worse by the impacts of climate change and natural hazards. Heavy rains can quickly turn into a disastrous flood as a result of insufficient or ineffective drainage. Such flooding can destroy the limited assets of poor households, halt economic activity, contaminate water supply, lead to disease and displace residents. With the increase in weather extremes, it is anticipated that such events will happen with recurring frequency.
Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle provides a unique glimpse into the life and history of one of America’s used-to-be, and maybe-again, great cities. From the outset you can tell that Mr. Martelle is more than an observant journalist; he’s a native. He’s got skin in the game.
Providing a biography of Detroit is a clever way to help the reader understand the nuances of what brought the city to where it is today. But the book reads more as an obituary than a city-in-progress biography. The closing Epilogue claims, “There is no real answer to the troubles afflicting places like Detroit”.
Back in 2004, the electrical utility in Brazil’s biggest city had a major problem. AES Eletropaulo was losing a large proportion of its revenue due to almost half-a-million illegal connections, most of them in São Paolo’s slums. Not only that, but they were causing often multiple-house fires on a monthly basis, along with frequent electrocutions. But the utility’s efforts to fix the problem were stymied by its poor relations with slum-dwellers, which made it almost impossible to work in these communities.
Sooner or later, anyone living in the US will hear a gun rights advocate say that ‘guns don’t kill people, people do.’ Semantics, but true. While we’re on semantics, strictly speaking, cities are not responsible for GHG emissions. Rather the people, or more specifically, those earning the most money, almost all of whom live in cities, are responsible for the vast majority of the world’s GHG emissions. But that is not nearly as easy to communicate, and messaging is important.
On cities and GHG emissions, what is the message we really need to communicate? First, it’s true, if you add up all the GHG emissions – direct (e.g., out the back end of our car) and indirect (e.g., the trees cut down for pasture or the belches from the cattle used in our hamburgers) – residents of cities are responsible for more than 70% of the world’s GHG emissions (and likely more than 80%). This should not be much of a surprise, as these same people are responsible for more than 80% of the world’s economy. GHG emissions are a by-product of the stuff we buy and do.
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.
As a graduate student in Cambridge, Massachusetts living outside my home country Philippines for the first time, attending Boston Red Sox games at Fenway Park marked the beginning of my initiation into American life — and that most American of pastimes: baseball. Fenway Park (the country’s oldest ballpark) turned 100 years old last Friday (April 27, 2012). It is a wonderful icon of the enduring nature and magnetic power of cities.
Fenway Park (like the city of Boston) is small, expensive, and still has infrastructure from 1912. The bathrooms, parking, and other amenities don't always work (again, like many great cities). But overall, this urban gem is the best place to watch a baseball game — despite the 86-year drought in World Series championships.
Growing up on a farm meant I spent very little time in cities. I felt more at home when surrounded by green than grey. As a kid, I saw cities as noisy, bright, busy and quite frankly, confusing. I always thought to myself why would anyone want to live in them? However, when I grew up, I moved to a city to take advantage of the opportunities it provided. I am not alone. More than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities and this number will rise. Cities are hubs of productivity, innovation and vast human capital; but once you live in them you begin to see that they are like any other ecosystem: complex and fragile, whose balance can be easily disturbed. With many cities rapidly growing and evolving, how do you manage this increasing complexity without destroying the ecosystem?
Geographical Information System (GIS) techniques have proven successful in mapping, analyzing and managing natural ecosystems. It is now time to make use of the same technology to manage, model and design our expanding global system of cities. GIS consists of a proven set of tools that can provide information to leaders at the local and national level to facilitate evidence-driven decision making. It allows us to move beyond 2D paper maps and incorporate everything that lies below, above and around a city to create a 3D digital representation of the city’s ecosystem. By integrating this information into the planning process, it will hopefully lead to harmonized planning across sectors. For example, integrated transport and land use planning and development will allow for economic, social and environmental benefits. More sectors can then be incorporated, with this integration not only happening within the city limits but including the urban periphery, where a lot of urban expansion is currently occurring. This holistic view will allow planners to make cities more livable.
I have a love-hate relationship with Earth Day (April 22nd) . The concept and enthusiasm are great; but the faux commercial interests and token personal efforts make me uneasy. True, every little bit helps, but the ‘lots of little efforts’ are still way too little, and may actually distract us from the big changes needed.
All good ideas usually come from several sources; and once they get going, often head off in several directions. Earth Day is no exception. The first Earth Day had two sources. San Francisco, again showing that cities lead, first observed Earth Day on March 21, 1970. The idea was to help celebrate the Equinox (first day of spring in northern hemisphere). A few weeks later, a US Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, called for an environmental teach-in arguing:
“I am convinced that all we need to do to bring an overwhelming insistence of the new generation that we stem the tide of environmental disaster is to present the facts clearly and dramatically.”
This is where I disagree. The facts are clear - and have been for a long time. The problem is we just don’t want to do the hard work that’s needed for any semblance of sustainability. We are very powerful procrastinators. So a few of us might as well turn off a light, or forgo the car while we wait to generate sufficient political and personal will to get on with the heavy lifting. But surely getting all these people thinking about, and working for, the environment can’t be a bad thing. Maybe it will help us act on the bigger stuff sooner.
Standing in the middle of the cloud forest in my home country of Costa Rica as a child I made the choice to dedicate my life to protecting the environment. Back then, the first image that came to mind when thinking about biodiversity conservation was definitely not that of a flourishing city. Fast forward 20 years and you’ll find the same environmentalist sitting in front of a computer in an office working on the challenges cities face as a result of climate change. What is a biologist doing working on cities? Well, I’m basically doing what I promised myself to do as a child… just from a different angle and in an apparently less exotic setting.