As the dust settles from Rio+20, I finally have a moment to reflect upon the outcomes of the historic Earth Summit Conference. The non-committal nature of the Rio text was a surprise to no one, yet the identification of buildings as an important strategy for the development of sustainable cities and urban infrastructure was still a “win” for the green building movement. Energy efficiency was also recognized as a strategy for combating climate change within both the developed and developing world. Our leaders’ acknowledgement of the role of the buildings sector in sustainable development is a testament to the benefits of green building that go beyond protecting the environment, as outlined in the United Nations Environment Programme Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative’s new report, "Building Design and Construction: Forging Resource Efficiency and Sustainable Development."
A paper, called Growing Cities Sustainably, was recently published in the Journal of the American Planning Association, which generated much debate on the benefits and disadvantages of the “compact” city model. The paper argues that for three studied regions in Britain, the current policy trend of promoting compact cities is actually economically and environmentally unsustainable. Britain has been very successful in implementing anti-sprawl policies, starting with the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. The new paper compares the compaction model with planned expansion models in three urban regions and concludes “Smart growth principles should not unquestioningly promote increasing levels of compaction. In many cases, the potential socioeconomic consequences of less housing choice, crowding, and congestion may outweigh its very modest CO2 reduction benefits.”
Anyone with more than one child knows never to answer the question ‘who’s your favorite?’. Professionals working with cities should also heed that advice. But I was at a dinner party last week and our host demanded we pick a favorite city. “No dessert and no one leaves the table without picking a favorite city,” she insisted.
Toronto, my hometown, certainly has all the necessary ingredients to be among the world’s best, but it is not living up to its potential, yet. Montreal and Vancouver are great Canadian cities, and Calgary and Edmonton are solid innovators. Winnipeg has IISD, a great world-class organization, and good canoeing near-by, but too many mosquitos and long winters.
Anyone who’s ever been knocked down knows that getting back up can be hard. The 10th Anniversary of Toronto’s ‘Summerlicious’ festival last weekend is a great example of how a city picked itself up after a solid blow.
During Summerlicious (and its seasonal twin, ‘Winterlicious’), restaurants offer two weeks of enticing prix fixe lunches and dinners. The festival, which originally started with 35 high-end restaurants, had more than 180 restaurants participating this year. The restaurant special helped the city recover from the precipitous drop in tourism when Toronto was hit by SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in April 2003.
Wow, Carly Rae Jepsen is Canadian. I had no idea. Ya, ya, my daughters are quick to remind me that I’m not the most up-to-date pop-culture aficionado, but I learned the other night on ABC news that Jepsen is Canadian. And that her catchy, upbeat song — Call Me Maybe — seems to be sticking like bubble gum in everyone’s mind these last few weeks. ABC News nominated her as ‘entertainer of the week’.
Welcoming foreigners and foreign influences into your home (even if they are Canadian) is never easy. For example, the same ABC newscast was aghast about how this year’s US Olympic uniforms are made in China. About a half-dozen US companies were surveyed, and of course all agreed they could quickly make the uniforms in time for the Olympics. None mentioned, however, that they would likely be more expensive than making them in China.
Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. Random House, 2012.
Katherine 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.
I never thought I’d say this but I disagree with David Letterman. He loves to lampoon the closing of Broadway in certain places for a pedestrian walkway and a tree or two. I’m now sitting on Broadway between West 34th and 35th Streets, coffee in hand, and my great MacBook Air – there’s even free wireless. The Macy’s on the corner is under renovation and promises to open anew as ‘the world’s largest store’ (hmm, I’ve seen that claim before). The weather is gorgeous; people are flowing by like a rushing river, and I have a couple of hours before my train leaves for DC.
The strength of a country, and especially the strength of a city, is its ability to react to, and repair, the social fissures that originate wherever three or more humans live together. Social tectonics is the natural fracturing along societal lines like wealth, education, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, even color of skin, shapes of noses, or sports team preferences. Humans are amazingly adept at finding things in others to be wary of.
Social tectonics is active everywhere. No government or leader can stop it – but much can be done to reinforce our societies, institutions and cities, as well as reducing stresses. Like observant seismologists, social scientists sense where stresses are increasing and approaching breaking points. For example, the Occupy Movement that has popped up in many American cities represents growing stress in people who see too much concentration of wealth. The Arab Spring is a fracture between the general populace and the few who concentrated political power.
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.