Big Foot, Small World
issue 313 - June 1999
CHRIS STOWERS / PANOS PICTURES
Democracy and urban ecology are
intimately connected, argues Herbert Girardet.
Twelve years ago, when filming a documentary, I saw a huge stack of mahogany being loaded on to a freighter at the port of Belém in the mouth of the Amazon. It had London stamped on it in large letters. It was then that I started taking an interest in the environmental impact of modern cities: the resources they take from the earth and the wastes they discharge into the global environment.
A few years ago the term ‘urban ecology’ started to emerge in magazine articles, books and TV programmes. Initially studies focused on ways to create healthy and pleasant urban environments, with clean water and air, green urban spaces for people to enjoy, and ample room for urban wildlife. Then some authors started pointing out that enhancing urban environmental conditions is also an issue of social justice: that the poorest, typically, live in the most polluted and most crowded urban areas, usually with very little green space available to them.
Urban ecologists started concerning themselves with children growing up in polluted environments. In Mexico City, for instance, children in art classes were found painting pictures in which the sky was coloured black rather than blue. Not surprisingly, doctors also discovered that respiratory diseases in such environments had reached unprecedented levels. Responding to popular demand, a vigorous popular movement for creating healthy cities was started in many countries, with the aim of cleaning up exhaust fumes from motor cars, reducing car access, banning polluting factories, improving sanitary conditions, particularly in the exploding cities of developing countries. Urban ecology was a frame of reference for much of this innovation.
Over the last few years the term has gradually acquired additional layers of meaning. Today it is no longer just concerned with ‘internal’ urban environments and the pollution city people are exposed to, but increasingly with the impact of cities on the global environments from which they draw their resources and into which they discharge their wastes. As developing countries continue down the road of rapid urban-industrial growth and of increased living standards, per-capita demand for land may well outstrip the amount available for urban needs.
The concept of the ‘ecological footprint’ of cities originated from research by the Canadian ecologist William Rees. He defined it as the surface areas required to feed cities, to supply them with forest products and to reabsorb their wastes, and particularly their output of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning. I have examined the ecological footprint of London, where I live: it equals the UK’s entire area of productive land, around 125 times London’s own surface area, a total of 19.7 million hectares. Rees established that European citizens average an ecological footprint of some three hectares, whereas North Americans require between four and five. Yet, worldwide, only one-and-a-half hectares of productive land is available per person.
CHRIS CALDICOTT / PANOS PICTURES
As the cities of the South grow exponentially they, like the cities of the North, are beginning to create their own ecological footprints.
In the early stages of growth the impact is mainly local. A friend, who is a pilot, recently described how when flying over African cities he kept seeing ever-widening rings of denuded, treeless land surrounding them. As people from rural areas, used to burning firewood and charcoal, become city dwellers they continue using these local energy sources as long as they can.
But as cities grow larger and as firewood becomes more difficult to obtain, people get used to burning coal, kerosene or gas, often shipped in from thousands of miles away. Individual fuel consumption invariably soars. In India and China it has been found that as people move to cities from rural areas they increase their per-capita energy use by some 45 per cent as they get used to motorized transport, electric lighting, cooking with kerosene and the like.
Urban agriculture is also going through changes. In African cities farming has always been a common feature of urban life. The Ghanaian capital of Accra, for instance, is permeated by vegetable patches and chicken runs – on wasteland, on the side of roads, even in parks. People moving in from the countryside also bring goats and sheep with them.
In a bid to modernize the city the mayor of Accra, Nat Nun-Amarteifio, had wanted to remove the urban growers and the hawkers from the city until his wife pointed out to him: ‘People have got to make a living. Let them be. Give them a role in the city’s life, make them feel that they are useful and they will be useful.’
Luckily, Nat followed her advice and allowed the activities of urban farmers and hawkers to be formally recognized. Accra has further benefited from a decentralization of power to local-community assemblies and grassroots initiatives, assuring an active democratic system that has brought decision-making and responsibility closer to the people.
The new Government of South Africa has also recognized the social and environmental benefits of encouraging urban agriculture, especially amongst the poorest people. During the Apartheid regime it was outlawed, as part of the strategy to make sure that Black South Africans did not get a foothold on the land. Today, especially in the squatter settlements, it is encouraged and flourishing.
Generally the global trend is not so positive. Take the example of China. Chinese cities are famously self-sufficient in food; Beijing administers an area of farmland the size of Belgium which supplies grain, poultry, pork, carp, fruit and vegetables. Urban farmers in China have always utilized the great variety of fertile materials they found in cities, meticulously recycling and composting human and animal wastes. But even Chinese cities are now beginning to follow Western patterns. Globalization is leading to more and more food being imported – grain from Kansas, for example, or soya from Mato Grosso. The erosion of food self-sufficiency in the cities of the world’s most populous nation represents a serious blow to global sustainability, and the appearance of increasingly large and heavy footprints on a fragile planet.
CAROLINE PENN / PANOS PICTURES
It’s no good pretending that greening cities is a simple issue; there are so many different factors to be taken into account. But one thing is clear: you can’t have a sustainable world without urban sustainability. And there can be no sustainability without an active urban democracy.
That means enabling all sectors of society to participate in the life of a city. Sometimes the very poorest people will have most to offer in terms of creating urban sustainability. The role that Zaballeen waste recyclers of Cairo play in keeping the city clean is now at last officially recognized. Not only do they separate and recycle paper and plastic waste, they also turn organic wastes into compost for urban-fringe agriculture.
But in many parts of the world the urban poor are seen only as an obstacle and the way they are treated by municipal authorities can make cities even less sustainable. For example, Mumbai (Bombay) squatter settlements keep being razed by municipal authorities, often on behalf of commercial developers.
The inhabitants are then relocated to the very outskirts. This means they have to travel long distances to get to the city in which they eke out their living, burning fuel and causing much pollution as a consequence.
Throughout the world new techniques for invigorating local democracy are being developed, especially under the auspices of Agenda 21 which emerged out of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. But one shining example began several years earlier. In the US city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, public ‘visioning exercises’ were initiated in 1984 and used to great effect. Chattanooga is a ‘first generation’ industrial city that lost most of its businesses in the 1960s. Initiated by the city authorities, the Chattanooga Venture involved the community in an exercise to reinvent the declining and polluted city.
As part of ‘Vision 2000’ 1,700 people were asked to express their hopes for the future and to formulate practical goals for reviving their city. Through a variety of public and private partnerships 790 million dollars were raised.
Today Chattanooga is recognized as a leading ‘Environment City’ in which good housing has been achieved for all, and where new environmental industries, including an exemplary waste-recycling system, have created many new jobs. All along the emphasis was on making linkages between environmental, social and economic sustainability.
We need to revive the vision of cities as places of democracy and conviviality and above all else of ‘settled’ living. This means creating more local lifestyles within and around cities themselves, focusing on the concept of the urban village within the city, where community living and the recreation of local economies can be a reality.
In American cities the creation of no fewer than 2,400 farmers’ markets over the last ten years is an intriguing example of re-establishing linkages between people and the local countryside. It will take the ingenuity and active collaboration of planners, architects and urban citizens to insure that lively, varied, convivial and safe urban environments are created that supersede the era of urban sprawl, pollution and dereliction.
Herbert Girardet is a documentary filmmaker and author of several books including the Gaia Atlas of Cities.
© Herbert Girardet
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.