Sustainable cities: a systemic approach

[Interview by Francesc Badia to Gary Gardner on]


Francesc Badia: Despite co-ordinated efforts at the international level, such as the United Nation’s Habit III conference in Quito this year, we’re seeing multiple crises in the sustainability of cities. What’s the role of the city in addressing this issue?


Gary Gardner: First, I think it’s important to understand cities as centres of consumption, and as centres of pollution creation in many parts of the world. Somewhere in the region of 80% of our economic activity happens in cities, and around 70-75% of resource consumption happens in cities. This is matched by the same share of carbon emissions. So cities are really important, even when we talk about global sustainability. They’re a wonderful way to study sustainability and they have a lot to offer in terms of innovation – there are a lot of exciting innovations that are coming out of cities and I would say that in Latin America, there are a number of examples that the North is copying.

One is the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that came out of Brasil, and is now growing in spreading rapidly throughout the world. There’s now something like 200 cities that have a BRT system. And it’s a wonderful way of providing the equivalent service of a metro system, but at a much lower cost.

There are also some social measures that have come out of Argentina – the prohuerta movement for example, is a wonderful way of taking land that isn’t being used by the city and developing it as gardens, and providing food security for citizens. It’s something that was very big in Buenos Aires, spreading across the country and now you can find it in other countries in Latin America.

So there are some wonderful examples of success that are coming out of Latin America, even as we are facing great challenges in terms of urban sustainability.


FB: Yes, and many of these challenges come from the regions tendency to create megacities and the strain they apply on the relationship between density, energy and space consumption. What policy approaches do you feel are capable of combating the expansion of such cities?


GG: One of the most direct ways to address sprawl, or expansion, is to simply say this is the limit of our city and we’re not going to grow beyond it. And that’s what the city of Portland in the United States has done. It has drawn a ring around the city and said this is the limit. All of the growth the city produces happens within that limit. And I think that’s a decent model to look at. Of course, it depends on the particular situation of each city but I think it’s something that’s very plausible.

The other thing is that the degree to which cities are dependent on public transport is increasing, and they are realising that this will only be cost-effective if you have a city that is compact. So, the realisation is that we can’t build our cities around the car may indirectly lead to cities limiting their own expansion.


FB: Another key issue for urban sustainability in Latin America is inequality. Is this simply structural, or do you see any specific policies that can help tackle this problem?


GG: Well, yes, it is difficult to overcome, but it’s not impossible. In Brazil there’s a policy of social housing for people of low income that offers green housing, available to many different kinds of people, and that can be used to minimise the difference between the rich and the poor.

Another practice that comes to mind for me is in Medellín in Colombia, where the metro cable (cable car) that has been built there was designed to link the poor who live in the alturas (the surrounding hillsides) with the people, and the metro system below. That I think is a good way of integrating the poor into the economy of the city.

An alternative approach is the use of participatory budgets. There are now something like 1,500 cities in the world that use them in some form – and it has even spread to New York City. In around 2013, something like 13,000 people in New York City were part of meetings where they could decide how a piece of the city’s budget was going to be spent. So it’s a very democratic initiative.


FB: There are a number of organisations – such as UCLG or ICLEA – that operate more at the national and international levels, rather than at a city level. Are they still able to fulfil their role, taking this approach?


GG: These types of organisations have a different perspective and a different agenda, although I think form their perspective they would say that they try to represent the grassroots level as well, and have institutional relationships with more local groups.

I think types of organisations operating at all levels each have their role. But looking at megacities particularly, one way I think we can deal with managing them is through a decentralisation process, where budgeting from example is happening at the local level. People can have a voice and help shape how their district is going to develop.

I suspect that that where people do have some control of the budget at this local level, you will find they will be investing in their own district – rather than finding their city has abandoned them, and them moving elsewhere. They will have a stake in creating a fairer, and better way of life in their own district. So I think the participatory budget piece can be used to decentralise decision making and ensure that the local level is still able to fulfil its role.


FB: In your report, you developed this concept of ‘place making’. How could this be applied in a Latin American context?


GG: In many cities there are a number of cases where space is not well utilised, or even abandoned. I think in New York and Los Angeles there are tens of thousands of empty lots, empty spaces. These can be very small, but often very large. And what I found interesting, again, was this example of Buenos Aires, where unused spaces were being used for the prohuerta jardines, the gardens, and in many cases it was just a case of people taking over a piece of abandoned land. This is an example of place making.

There is a gentrified place making and a democratic equivalent. The more gentrified version creates beautiful spaces, and often receives a lot of investment. That can be fine, but then there’s also the more democratic type of place making – such as this example of Buenos Aires. There, it has really raised people out of poverty, or at least given them a basic level of food security. When this started in around 2001, there were many people living in poverty, during a period of recession. Now I think there are 53,000 gardens helping 350,000 people to have a basic level of nutrition. So it’s where place making can be related very well to quality of life.



FB: There is also a political dimension, the securitisation of public space, which contradicts its original purpose. Why do you think this has happened, and are there any competitive strategies that seek to restore the public dimension, over the politicisation of this space?


GG: Well, of course governments today have many more tools at their disposal to be able to watch people, and to in some cases supress people who are trying to act in a natural, democratic way – and that can happen in these public spaces. But I find some encouragement from examples of the spontaneous use of space by citizens. There is a city in the US where people wanted a greater social emphasis on walking around the city, and a movement emerged where people would go around the city and paint stripes at intersections to create a space where I can walk. And that just happened spontaneously, and I think it’s a good example of the kind of power people have – it takes creativity, it takes courage – but it’s an effort by the people to reclaim some of these public spaces from their securitisation.

FB: City pollution is another big question when discussing urban sustainability, and we are more often than not underachieving our targets. This is not a new problem, so why is it still the case?

GG: The World Health Organisation reported that 1 out of 8 deaths are caused by air pollution, which is the context behind this question. You’re right, it’s a problem that’s been around for a long time - there have been measures to try and address it, and in fact cars are much cleaner than they used to be, yet air pollution levels continue to be problematic – well it’s because the demand for cars has continued to increase.

So while governments may have addressed one piece of the puzzle, they didn’t look at the problem as being systematic. And the problem is building cities around cars. You can make cities cleaner, but then if you have more cars you haven’t really solved the pollution problem. The requirement is to build cities around people, and give people clean and efficient public transportation.


So I think the response is that we need to be looking at the whole system and addressing these problems from a systems perspective, not as simply a question of individual pollution.

(Published on 10 November 2016)