A clean city means far more than low emissions and renewable energy

Bogotá recently held a round of lively debates on sustainable cities in the context of the Rio+20 conference. Experts from many countries and citizens from the Colombian capital attended the debates. One conclusion that I draw from this event is the urgent need to put sustainable development in our urban agendas. We must identify and increase collaboration between “city champions” in public office, business and civil society who are committed to integrating sustainability and resilience in urban development.

In a country like Colombia where war, poverty, and corruption dominate the public debate, we must explain why sustainable development makes sense and why it is development for all. The way we address energy, transport and waste management questions are inherently political because they define how we develop and who benefits from it. Let’s address these questions now when we still have time to shape the future of our cities. Let’s remember that a clean society means more than low carbon emissions and renewable energy – it means egalitarian, democratic, and more human places to live in.

Now more than ever, it is essential that we pay close attention to the push for better, cleaner and healthier cities. The Rio +20 conference held in Colombia is a case in point.

This August, the city of Bogotá hosted a follow up conference of Rio +20 – the process organized by the United Nations on sustainable development. Although these kind of international conferences tend to be too removed from citizens, this particular one was different given its strong focus on sustainable cities, transport and tourism.

The selection of Bogotá as the host was no coincidence. The city’s efforts and leadership in sustainable transport projects including electric taxicabs and the hybrid fleet of Transmilenio, the city’s massive transport system, played a key role in the selection. Bogota’s mayor, Gustavo Petro, made the case that cities play a vital role in addressing climate change and framed the event as an opportunity to promote local and regional action on climate.

The conference was held in the midst of fluid city politics. Petro’s Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial (POT) - Bogotá’s plan for development - has been suspended and Petro himself was removed from office earlier in the year only to be reinstated later. Meanwhile, Colombia has seen climate change devastate the country with historic droughts in Casanare and water scarcity in La Guajira. One can argue this conference took place at the right time.

Changing Urban Realities

Strong urbanization is re-shaping the developing world. More than 50% of the global population lives in urban areas. The world is expecting 2-3 billion additional middle class consumers by 2040 and most of this growth will happen in cities. Rio +20 in Bogotá served as an undeniable reminder of these trends.

Cities are also responsible for 75% of world greenhouse gas emissions and suffer firsthand the impacts of climate change. As a result, they are poised to act as catalysts for positive change – city politics and governance are, arguably, closer to the people than national governments.

Bogotá continues to grow, but faces dangerous levels of social inequality. In the past decade, an influx of displaced people from other parts of Colombia has arrived to the city, looking to escape from violence in rural areas. Bogotá has also faced recent scandals because of corruption in city contracts. That is why, some would argue, that the city has little or no room for sustainable development. Sanitation, education, and corruption – the argument goes - should be the most important concerns.

The problem with that rationale is that it reduces sustainable development to an “environmental” agenda. This is no longer the case. Sustainable development means urban mobility, clean air, and plenty of green recreational spaces. It means food security, healthy people and a high standard of living for a majority.

Sustainable development means urban mobility, clean air, and plenty of green recreational spaces. It means food security, healthy people and a high standard of living for a majority.

The current administration of Bogotá understands that a broader sustainable development perspective is needed for the city. For the first time in its history, the Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial:

  • Integrates sustainability in Bogotá’s development and prioritizes the environment
  • Organizes the city considering water sources, public participation, eco-urbanism, adaptation to climate change and integral management of solid waste.
  • Envisions a dense, compact and inclusive city.
  • Tries to make the city more walkable by recognizing pedestrians as the center of urban mobility. It expands the planning for new Transmilenio lines and a subway system.

Unfortunately, the POT has been suspended by a national council or “Consejo de Estado”, after they considered Petro lacked the legal standing to modify the city’s existing plan.

Towards Cleaner Societies

What central lesson accrues from the debate hosted in Bogota about sustainable cities? Why should citizens listen?

Sustainable and walkable cities are in our reach. It is important to stress this point. We need to move away from to the notion that poor air, low mobility and gray cities are inevitable. The time has come to demand cities that are people-centric, transport-oriented and resource efficient. Cities that work for the people. This will not happen unless our national and local governments are held accountable for their actions. They deserve credit when they make better choices. They also need to be exposed when they fail to defend the public interest. New public and private partnerships for clean urban development are needed. What I draw from these discussions in Bogotá is that we urgently need to identify city champions in public office and in business that will commit to fostering positive change in terms of sustainability and resilience.

There is no reason why sustainable development should not be at the centre of our urban vision. Sustainability is a political vision, not the latest “trend”. Climate change, efficient transport, and urban mobility affect us all, especially the poor. Our approach to these challenges will define the future of our cities. Unsolved environmental problems will have deep political, economic, and social ramifications, demanding our increased attention, especially at the local level of governance. We cannot afford treating these topics as the subjects of “international environmental conferences”.

Events like Rio +20 are great spaces to foster dialogue especially when they offer an opportunity for citizens to re-think their city and re-imagine a better future. For a growing number of Bogotanos, for instance, “more of the same” is no longer an option.

How do we effect social change? The public holds the key. We need an environmental narrative of inclusiveness and accessibility, for example to public services. We have had enough environmental summits and discussions among experts who are often disconnected from the people and their needs. While some of these global events serve a purpose – they raise awareness, shape public discourse and foster innovation in our cities—it is time to re-focus on local solutions and innovations: public transport and green spaces deserve new attention all year round. The city is where policies and initiatives are implemented; citizens and the city can shift development towards a cleaner pathway.

We need an environmental narrative of inclusiveness and accessibility, for example to public services. We have had enough environmental summits and discussions among experts who are often disconnected from the people and their needs.

Today, corruption dominates much of the public debate in Colombia. New voices are needed in my country so that we articulate to the public why cleaning politics and cleaning up development reinforce each other, ultimately benefiting the majority. How we manage energy, transport and waste management will define in large part who we will be as a country. It will define whether development works or not for most of us. Let’s get started before we make the wrong long term decisions. Cities are the natural starting point for a new vision in which a clean society will mean far more than low carbon emissions and renewable energy: it will mean more egalitarian, democratic, and human places to live in.

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