Monday, November 10, 2008

Leadership and Policy: The Keys to Solving a Global Crisis


I attended a fascinating conference last week at the University of Pennsylvania, entitled “Re-imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil.” Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the conference marks the 50th anniversary of the 1958 “Conference on Urban Design Criticism,” also sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and Penn.

In 1958, now-renowned figures like Jane Jacobs, Louis Kahn, Kevin Lynch, Ian McHarg, Lewis Mumford and I.M. Pei pondered the problems of their time, and forged a vision for the future. At this 2008 conference, contemporary American urbanists partook in the same exercise, but this time focusing on energy and climate issues as central to our global future. This conference also featured some bigwigs like Judith Rodin, Robert Yaro, and Neal Peirce, as well as many of Penn’s renowned faculty and local government officials.

Perhaps the best part of the conference was how international it was. So many of these types of programs typically include an array of American speakers all focusing on the insular issues of a wealthy, auto-centric nation, with struggling post-industrial cities, and booming suburbs overrun by strip malls and McMansions. It was refreshing to hear about a much broader and more complex range of urban issues from across the globe. For example:

  • Dinesh Mohan of the Indian Institute of Technology talked about the competitive advantage of allowing squatters to live in urban downtowns, because these residents would rely on far less in government services than if they lived in the poverty-stricken countryside. This note reflected the extreme efficiency of urban areas to provide services cost-effectively to a large number of people.
  • Samuel Babatunde Agbola, a professor at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria talked about the problem of convincing a host of provincial leaders to work together on regional transportation issues in Nigeria. This was an concept that struck a chord for the session moderator, Robert Yaro, who citied the over 900 municipal governments in the New York region that need to cooperate.
  • Jiang Wu, Deputy Director General of the Shanghai Urban Planning Administration Bureau laid out Shanghai’s vision of surrounding its city of 18 million people with nine new satellite cities of up to one million people each, while preserving 30% of the land surrounding Shanghai as permanent open space. This would be a top-down solution for centralizing land use and transportation while promoting land preservation.
  • Jonas Rabinovitch, now at the United Nations, but who formerly worked for Jaime Lerner, the renowned former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, explained Curitiba’s famous mass transit system that uses bus rapid transit to emulate the efficiency of a subway, but at much lower costs.
  • One of the most fascinating perspectives came from Adij Najam, of Boston University, who argued that if we viewed the planet Earth in the way that we view countries (GDP, levels of poverty, pollution, education rates, employment, etc.) that Earth would be a very poor country, indeed.

Several of the speakers brought up the fact that America’s new concern about energy is almost exclusively the result of rising gasoline prices. We have been here before. In the 1970s during the last major spike in gas prices there was a significant increase in awareness about energy issues. However, prices sank again, and when Philadelphia’s renowned city planner, Edmund Bacon, tried to host a “Post-Petroleum City Conference” in 1993, it fizzled due to lack of interest, and never got off the ground.

Certainly those present at Penn understood the profound crisis that our world faces. It is not just about energy, but about global warming and rising population – to name some of the largest threats to life as we know it. The conference raised some profound questions: How do we achieve the 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that many scientists feel will be necessary in the coming decades to avoid massive melting in the polar regions? How will we feed the estimated nine billion people who will be here, according to many estimates, less than fifty years from now?

It was evident at the conference that many of the experts dealing with these issues across the globe agree that cities offer our best – perhaps only – hope for addressing these problems. Cities are the most energy and resource efficient environments. They have the ability to house and transport large numbers of people; connect them cheaply with resources, jobs, transportation, and food; and leave much of our natural landscape for agricultural and natural uses.

In China, the government can engineer land-use policy to ensure that people live in compact cities and the natural lands stay open, as Jiang Wu discussed for Shanghai. However, most of the world does not have this kind of government-controlled land-use authority, certainly not here in the U.S. In our individualistic society, how do we take on these profound challenges?

In a panel moderated by Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron, Andrew Revkin, New York Times’ Dot Earth blogger, talked about the difficulty of convincing newspaper editors to print news of environmental issues, because they are not matters of immediate concern. Newspapers report on the here-and-now, not the been-brewing-for-half-a-century and will-start-to-impact-us-in-the-next-couple-of-decades.

Of course, Americans have cared about environmental issues. One of the conference speakers remarked that many people are “tired of green.” He was referring to the current fad (?) of every product, company, and commercial having some kind of tie-in to environmental issues. Some experts feel that “green” has become the most profitable advertising tool of all time.

However, as Revkin noted, we are not going to solve the energy crisis through small-scale, individual action. It is great for Americans to be aware of environmental issues; however, turning off the lights, buying a certain product, and recycling are not even going to touch the tip of the iceberg. The kinds of solutions that America and other countries across the globe need are large-scale shifts in our lifestyles. That is a hard (perhaps impossible) sell for America.

The kinds of shifts we need in the U.S. will require a significant number of Americans to give up their cars or use them considerably less. Millions more people need to move to concentrated metropolitan areas. We need to invest in mass transit solutions to cut down on the carbon footprint of our transportation infrastructure. We need intercity rail to reduce our reliance on air travel. We need energy efficient homes and offices.

If it is going to be possible for America to achieve true strides in reducing our energy consumption and our carbon footprint, change will have to start at both the top and the bottom. This was a constant theme throughout the conference at Penn. In the Greater Philadelphia Region we have over 350 municipal governments, each with its own leadership, its own zoning, its own police, fire departments, and schools, and its own policies. However, the these local governments make some of the most significant policy in our nation – affecting land use and transportation decisions. As long as each of our local, county, and state governments only look out for their own geographic boundaries, we will get nowhere.

The first step to the kind of change we need is clearly leadership. American spoke last week electing a president who ran on a platform of change, and who has advocated for energy and climate issues as main priorities. It has been generations since America has seen true leadership, setting an example from the top for profound change.

However, leadership is not enough. Our nation’s leaders need a popular political mandate to shift policies in a significant way. This means that average Americans need to feel that issues of energy and sustainability are significant enough to win their vote, their letter or phone call to their congressman or senator. The issues that most effectively bring collective awareness and a call for crisis-level action are those that hit the pocketbook or strike close to home. Hurricane Katrina got us thinking about global sea rise. Increasing gas prices got us thinking about fuel shortage.

The bottom line is that in America, while we do not govern collectively, we do develop a collective ideology of what is important. We know that issues that impact us financially or socially at a local level, will gain our attention and our support. Andrew Revkin is right that environmental issues do not seem to be immediate to many Americans, right now. However, with the right leadership, and with the right policies Americans will both see the daily local impact of environmental issues, and be inspired to take action.

The question is, how to frame the issue so that it shows its immediacy to a wide spectrum of the American public? How do we create financial incentives to make these issues hit home on a day-to-day basis? How do we seize on local awareness of environmental repercussions (like Katrina), and tell the story on a national level, in a way that captures the hearts and minds of average Americans?

Which tools will work, will resonate, will be palatable to the American public are the questions that confront our lawmakers today. They are the challenges for the next presidential administration. However, what is clear is that only if our policy makers can provide true leadership, and answer these tough questions will we, in America, be able to start on the track of tackling our share of this global crisis.

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