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Cities are Key to a New Architecture for a Livable World

Jacob Scherr

Posted November 14, 2013

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A year ago when the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy breached the banks of Manhattan and Queens, Ronald Jumeau was watching from a fourth floor window on Roosevelt Island, the narrow island in New York City’s East River. “So that’s what sea level rise looks like,” he thought.

 Ambassador Jumeau (left) with Celeste Connors (photo by Stepahnie Stefanski)

Jumeau should know. He is the New York-based roving ambassador for climate change from the Seychelles, whose 115 islands in the Indian Ocean are sinking and will be mostly under water in another 50-100 years, some project. The ambassador told this story at our recent “Rio+20 to 2015” conference at Yale where some 180 officials, experts, advocates, and students discussed a new global architecture to address climate change and the broader challenge of sustainability.

 At the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, national governments negotiated treaties and a long detailed agenda to protect our planetary home while addressing poverty and inequality. Now a generation later, it is evident that the traditional top-down international structures simply have not produced the required results.  The international treaty process “isn’t delivering fast enough for us island states—especially on climate change,” said Jumeau, who is leading an alliance of island states concerned about their vulnerability to rising seas. “It already is too late for some islands in the Indian Ocean. We cannot save them.” (It is just not little islands at risk, a new scientific paper projects that 316 American cities are threatened by rising seas, enough to submerge half the population at high tide, due to global warming.)

 A number of the speakers noted that there had been too much reliance on globally-negotiated agreeements. Glenn Prickett of the Nature Conservancy pointed instead  tomore interesting coalitions” of local governments, non-profits and corporations with “enlightened self-interest” in sustainability.  At the massive June 2012 UN gathering in Rio de Janeiro marking the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit, there were hundreds of such commitments made by Presidents, Prime Ministers, Mayors, CEOs, and other actors. The real success at Rio+20 was this encouraging cloud of commitments. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said these promises are the “bricks and cement” to build a more sustainable future. 

One of the most important of  Rio+20 commitments came from the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport or "SloCat."  Michael Replogle of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy points out that SloCat was skeptical that the "outcome document" to be negotatied at Rio+20 would be “transformational,” when it came to mass transit.  So this coalition of 80 organizations worked on obtaining a commitment from the World Bank and seven other development banks to spend $175 billion over the next ten years on clean urban transit in developing countries.

The focus on urban issues is relatively new for the international environmental summitry.   Until recently, “Cities were regarded as a threat,” and “people who worked on local government authorities didn’t feel they had a voice in negotiations,” noted Don Chen, who is leading the Just Cities initiative at the Ford Foundation.  An older generation of environmentalists nurtured on British economist E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book Small is Beautiful often saw urbanization as anathema to the natural environment, which they equated with the countryside. But we’re starting to realize that cities can also be places of beauty and that “making them beautiful and clean is part of making cities more equal,” said Replogle. 

We’re starting to see cities as part of the solution, Chen said, partly because their growth is unstoppable.  By 2050, 7 out of 10 people will be living in cities. In addition, “Cities are among the most efficient settlement patterns,” observed James Goldstein, research director of Communitas, a new coalition for sustainable cities and regions.   Communitas  is working with the United Nations to include cities in a new set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) to be adopted in 2015 when the current Millennium Development goals expire.   Setting such a goal would galvanize local leaders and “ultimately affect where investment takes place,” Goldstein contended.

Speaking at an early Saturday morning session at the Yale conference,  Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University Professor, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General, and best-selling author made connections between cities, sustainability, and climate change.  (Climate change is the subject of the other major UN process set to be completed in 2015 when nations are expected to gather in Paris to adopt a new treaty.) Professor Sachs said that an urban sustainability goal “will create a constituency of tens of thousands and help mayors all over the world,” he said. “I want the world to go into a 15-year seminar on sustainable development. We need mass mobilization: Decisions will be taken in 50,000 cities around the world and they need knowledge and expertise.”

And if there’s any doubt about the urgency, Sachs pointed to countries like China: “They have to do something because you can’t breath the air, their kids are unsafe, their cities are facing disasters. “Just about everybody is scared about the world we’re experiencing-- whether it’s more floods, more waves, more instability,” Sachs said of his meetings with world leaders. “Around the world there is tremendous concern because the warnings [of climate change scientists] have now come true. So climate change is about the present not the future.”

The Rio+20 to 2015 conference expanded the conversation now underway on new structures and approaches to make the transformative change that Sachs and many others argue we must make if we are to achieve a more sustainable future.  Much work remains to design this new architecture, but what seems clear is that cities must have a central role if we are to succeed.

 I am grateful for the assistance of Sarah Glazer in reporting and drafting this blog.


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