Sustainable Urbanization, Private Sector and People

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.

3 thoughts on “Sustainable Urbanization, Private Sector and People

  1. By Anonymous

    Oscar makes a great point that “sustainability is ultimately about people.” I want to focus this comment on one thought-provoking sentence at the end: “Cities are also about people, and how we create opportunities for our residents to thrive.”

    This sentence started me along a journey where I ultimately landed on the realization that much of the sustainable city discussions tend to overlook the role of creating “opportunities for [ALL of] our residents to thrive” (“all” added for emphasis and discussion). For instance, our class discussed in detail Bloomberg’s focus on attracting businesses to New York by improving the transportation infrastructure, greening the city’s buildings, and investing in ensuring clean water and reliable energy. While certainly ambitious, one could argue that New York, and many cities around the world, has focused heavily on making the city a better place only for those who can afford to live there.

    A sustainable city is a place where all residents can thrive equitably and alongside each other. Yes, cities that focus heavily on competitiveness may certainly enjoy some economic bumps in the short and medium-terms. However, cities (and countries for that matter) that fail to ensure that all of its residents have access to needed public services; have affordable, quality housing; and access to needed tools for self-improvement (e.g., educational facilities, job training sites) will continue facing heated political debates that will continue to paralyze decision-making processes. This paralysis will ultimately destroy the competitiveness that policymakers are so focused on creating.

    Furthermore, democracy requires that all of its citizens feel that they are intimately linked to the well-being and success of the broader society. As economic inequality rises and residential segregation by class intensifies (i.e., by pricing out longtime residents of neighborhoods), citizens will continue to feel left further and further behind the “job creators” who seem to occupy so much of policymakers’ minds.

    My chief concern with the focus on “green” or “sustainable” cities (particularly in America) is that these cities are investing in these initiatives in an effort to attract the “job creators” while diverting resources away from pressing social demands such as funding public education and providing affordable housing. What these plans fail to consider is a city can have the greenest buildings in the world but if the low-skilled labor is forced to commute an hour into the city to work barely minimum wage jobs serving the “job creators” and then return home where essential city services are inefficient or sometimes ineffective, businesses and “job creators” will quickly realize that the inequalities that exist make for an unsustainable city.

    Ultimately, businesses and entrepreneurs want to live in a city where the political decision-making is streamlined and enjoys broad support by the population, which can only happen when everyone feels they are sharing in both the gains and sacrifices made within the city.

    • By John Macomber

      To this point, at the recent HBS Social Enterprise Conference, I moderated a panel called, “Designing for the Future: How Do We Ensure the Creation of Tomorrow’s Sustainable Cities?” While this sounds like high architecture for the elite, in practice the other panelists and I agreed to define “Sustainable” for the afternoon and not leave the meaning floating. More interesting to me, we defined it as having three parts, (including the editorial comment below from our preparation correspondence):

      “Moderator to define sustainability for this session as having three components to optimize:

      1. Environmental footprint,

      2. Economic exchange and vibrancy, and

      3. Social connectedness

      “(This is likely well beyond the pre-conceived definition for many attendees, who will still be thinking about rainforest wood, dumpster sorting, and windmills)”

    • By John Macomber

      Not a lot of people seem to quite notice the class and race overtones of the entire “sustainability’ movement and notably PlaNYC. While it’s not bridge bond six tier structured finance it’s also an aspect of which I at least wanted to make you aware.

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