If you go to a conference on cities and climate change, you inevitably hear the statement that “countries talk…but cities act”. This message was loud and clear at the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Summit in Johannesburg last month, where a new report released by the C40 and ARUP detailed the 8000+ initiatives that C40 member cities are undertaking to either reduce GHG emissions or increase their climate resilience. Since the first such report came out in 2011, more cities are reporting on their efforts, and those reporting are doing ever more, expanding the array of initiatives they have launched.
Last month, I paid a visit to the Zahrat Al-Finjan landfill located 18 km south of Jenin City in the northern West Bank. I was impressed with the status of solid waste management in this part of the West Bank and inspired by how various local governments were cooperating despite the volatile political environment.
The Zahrat Al-Finjan landfill near Jenin in the West Bank (Photo by Farouk Banna)
When I arrived in Jenin on the morning of January 29, the head of the Joint Service Council (JSC) and his staff welcomed me and took me up to the education center located atop the building. This room provides an extraordinary aerial view of the landfill.
Candida Brady, producer/director of “Trashed,” on communicating the need for clean-up
Candida Brady thinks everyone should visit a landfill for a day. The producer/director of the 2012 documentary “Trashed” (view trailer), which follows actor Jeremy Irons on a global tour of garbage sites, did just that at the beginning of her quest to understand the toll trash takes on peoples’ health.
Standing amid these mountains of decay is the only way for people to “understand landfills’ smell, and how it makes you feel,” Brady says. “None of us could talk after filming in them and one of my crew members was violently ill after we filmed in the landfill in Lebanon.”
A recent EASIN Urban, Transport and DRM Community of Practice (CoP) meeting I attended in Seoul, South Korea was an eye opener in terms of the rapid urban development of the city of Seoul. Considered an East Asian tiger, manufacturing and an export-led economy have made Seoul a global city with neon skylines and the new focus of Asia’s technology boom. A presentation by Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG), the agency responsible for the city’s urban planning, describes the city as a ‘strategic space for people to reside in since ancient times’. Nevertheless, the city and its urban identity have gone through various transformations – through the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) to restoration after the Korean war (1950-53) to industrialization (1960s-1970s) to development and globalization. In SMG’s words, Seoul is witnessing the ‘environmental and historical awakening as a world city’. Evidence of this was seen in sites I visited to the restored Cheonggyecheon stream and a former landfill converted to Haneul Park.
One of the most common challenges in economic development is collecting comparable data. The information age is changing that as the diffusion of information technology meets changes in institutional attitudes toward data sharing. New capabilities are meeting old capabilities on our desktop computers and it is leading to some bright ideas in how to measure and evaluate economic development.
The first that comes to mind is nighttime lights imagery – colloquially referred to as nightlight data. Nightlight refers to light resulting from human activity visible from outer space at night. Astronomers call it light pollution. This is pretty accurate since nightlight is the waste by-product when humans use of energy that is emitted or reflected straight up into the sky – these could be city lights, car headlights, fires, etc.
If you visit the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., one of the exhibits you’ll come across is a map of the Earth, which shows lights detected by satellites at night. With even a cursory look, it’s clear the lights pick out spatial patterns of urban and economic development. Look at the USA, and you see the coasts are brightly lit, whereas the country’s interior is much less so. Look at the Korea peninsula and you see that whilst South Korea is almost ablaze with light, the North is noteworthy for its almost complete absence of light.
The potential ability of night-time lights imagery to detect spatial patterns of urban and economic development has been known in the remote sensing community since the late 1970s. However, it has only recently been brought to the attention of economists following a paper by Vernon Henderson, Adam Storeygard and David Weil entitled “Measuring Economic Growth from Outer Space.” This paper alerted economists to the strong correlation between a country’s rate of GDP growth and the growth in intensity of its night-time lights, and the fact that the lights represent (for economists) a relatively untapped dataset with global coverage and a time-series dating back more than twenty years.
Urbanization is the most powerful force shaping the planet today. This can be good news as urbanization is the best bet we have to meet our global poverty reduction targets. Cities generate our wealth, our culture, and our innovation. This is also bad news since cities generate the lion’s share of the world’s GHG emissions, and cities are responsible for most of the planet’s current decline in biodiversity. Cities also generate solid waste; lots of it and the amount is growing fast.
‘Peak waste’ – that point in time when all the waste from all the cities finally plateaus around the world, and then slowly starts to decline, is not on track to happen this century. Estimates are that it will peak at three-times today’s current waste generation rate. Peak waste is an excellent proxy for humanity’s cumulative global environmental impact; therefore we are on track to triple today’s overall global environmental impact. Our ‘assault on the planet’ will start to subside on the other side of peak waste. Therefore we must move peak waste forward and reduce its intensity when it finally does arrive.
Thoughts on urban growth from Kiel to Nairobi
I’m writing at the end of a long, dusty mission, after numerous plane, train and car journeys. In fact, 1/7th of my time has been spent on being transported from one city to the next; this gave me plenty of time to marvel at the diversity in city structures.
The first stop was Kiel, Germany, where I spent a few hurried days with academics, government officials, private companies and journalists, discussing solutions for pressing problems in trade and clusters and their impact on poverty and inequality. A city of around 280,000 residents, Kiel is small, about as dense as Dublin, and well-linked with the rest of Germany and Europe. It is one of multiple core-municipalities that form a system of cities around Hamburg along with Lübeck, Bremen etc. The train from the airport was relatively painless, and travel within Kiel (to shop for fresh bread and herring) consisted mostly of short walks.
Welcome to the first US government shutdown in 17 years. Yes, we have experienced this before, but it is still shocking. Over 800,000 workers have been furloughed. The Lincoln Memorial, Smithsonian museums, along with over 400 federal parks and monuments are closed, forcing people to alter their holidays. Most of our space program has been put on hold, and the long-term socio-economic costs have yet to be calculated (partially because the people who could collect that data are out of commission). One thing is clear, the longer the shutdown continues, the bigger the impact becomes.
Most of the global community views the US shutdown with a “mixture of bewilderment and growing nervousness”. Some are amazed in a positive way. Chinese netizens are in awe that the entire country is not paralyzed in anarchic chaos. However, what the Chinese haven’t accounted for is the strength and importance of the local government.
Chances are by now you’ve seen the video ‘What Does the Fox Say?’ The Ylvis brothers developed a catchy music video starting in Norway and spreading like a wild fire across the planet, jumping from city to city. In less than a week 15 million people watched the fox dance and try to make his case.
Videos and other social media are emerging as one of the most powerful forces shaping countries and cities. For example, Oscar Morales and his Facebook campaign to ban FARC in Colombia, the Arab Spring, and Toronto’s recent police shootings and earlier G20 beatings (video taped and shared widely – police charged and convicted).
Many of us may think of the more urban mammals like a cow or two, raccoons, squirrels, rats, feral dogs and cats, but when it comes to cities, the fox has a lot to say. Here are a few of his likely comments on cities.