POVERTY-ENVIRONMENT NEXUS: LESSONS LEARNED FROM 20 MEGACITIES
Given the magnitude of climate change concerns and the worldwide concentration of population and economic activities in cities, it is not surprising that many regard cities as the enemy of environmental sustainability. This misinformed perception has created counter-productive incentives and anti-urban policies that exacerbate the problem.
The premises for moving towards a sustainable and equitable future include:
(1) There can be no global ecological sustainability without urban ecological sustainability.
- Concentration of the human population in cities is a necessity. Not only do the economies of scale create energy and resource efficiencies, but also, if the entire land mass of the planet were divided into individual household plots, there would be no space left for either agriculture or natural wilderness areas.
- Circular rather than linear systems: As cities concentrate pollution and environmental degradation, transforming the urban metabolism through circular rather than linear systems is the key to reversing our global environmental deterioration. We need to re-use our water and waste streams, and utilize what is now discarded as productive resource.
(2) There can be no urban environmental solution without alleviating poverty. The urban poor tend to occupy the most ecologically fragile areas of our cities, such as steep hillsides, low-lying swamplands, or adjacent to hazardous industries. In addition, their lack of resources often prohibits them from having adequate water, sewage, or solid waste management systems. Without alternative locations to settle and sufficient income to cook and keep warm, their survival will increasingly be pitted against environmental needs.
(3) There can be no lasting solutions to poverty or environmental degradation without building on bottom-up, community-based innovations. Since creativity was not distributed along lines of race, class, or gender, experts and policymakers are not always the best source of system-transforming innovations. The most creative and resource-efficient solutions to urban problems tend to emerge at the grassroots level, closest to the problems being solved. And, without local participation in implementation, even the best ideas are doomed to failure.
(4) There can be no impact of scale without sharing what works among leaders and scaling up into policy. While small may be beautiful, it’s still small and the problems are enormous. In order to have meaningful impact, micro-initiatives need to be replicated across neighborhoods and cities through peer-to-peer learning or incorporated into public policy frameworks.
(5) There can be no urban transformation without changing the old incentive systems and “rules of the game.” Since every sector of urban society holds a de facto veto on the others, local innovations can never achieve scale with cross-sectoral partnerships involving government, business, NGOs, academia, media, and grassroots groups. We need to create a climate conducive to experimentation, mutual learning, and collaboration.
(6) There can be no sustainable city of the 21st Century without social justice and political participation, as well as economic vitality and ecological regeneration: Innovations that promote ecological regeneration are just one piece of the puzzle. It is only by seeking out innovations in social equity, participatory democracy, and economic productivity — and ideally, innovations that possess all four attributes — that our cities can be truly be sustainable for the 21st Century and beyond.