By Oscar Quintanilla
Although the “Overall Framework for Sustainable Urbanization” seems comprehensive, class discussions have been mostly around how to influence structures. It is not a new shortfall; it reflects a broader problem in cities around the world. Of the three components in the center of the framework (people, structures and land), structures are the less contentious and where private sector involvement can generate more profits. It makes sense for a class in infrastructure finance to center around this component, but it doesn’t really make sense when what we are dealing with is sustainability.
Cities are complex organisms, without clear boundaries or static definitions, continuously changing and adapting. As such, talking about the structures without even mentioning people or land is an unexciting conversation. As we saw in one of the presentations, people behavior has the most impact in sustainable development. I might argue that land use patterns are even more important. Structures help support human activity, but land use patterns and human behavior are more critical components for understanding these activities.
For example, Japanese villages got it right because houses are all clustered together, and the parcels for farming are outside the village. This makes it easier for interactions, service provision, and business. Contrary to this concept, the United States and many other countries organize farmland by having people live within the boundaries of their properties. In this case land use pattern have tremendous impacts on whether a community can become sustainable or not. All the talk about innovative technologies, energy efficient cars, and LEED buildings does not provide a long-term solution.
Then there are people. Cities are ultimately agglomerations of people, with complex interactions and interdependencies. The physical environment is extremely important, but it is only the place where PEOPLE live, work, and play. Creating “sustainable cities” in the middle of the dessert for people that don’t live in a desert to begin with is a curious approach. Why not attract people to climates that are less extreme? Masdar or KAEC are economic development strategies of Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, not best practices in sustainability. Energy efficient buildings or electric cars are ways to reduce energy used per square footage or per kilometer, but they don’t help to change behavior. Instead, people are driving more miles on their hybrid cars, or building cities in more extreme climates.
Sustainability is ultimately about people. The concept itself is about providing for the present without affecting the capacity of future generations. Cities are also about people, and how we create opportunities for our residents to thrive. What should the role of the private sector be in creating sustainable cities? We should stop thinking the solution is something no one has thought about, and instead learn from the history of successful cities and regions. Private sector already had a role in creating sustainable transportation, dense cities and mixed-use developments. Let’s learn from what was done then and adapt it forward to the 21st century. I surmise that the three cores are: people, land use patterns and making money.