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The Warsaw Voice » GLOBAL@Voice » June 29, 2012
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The Urban Solution by Saskia Sassen
June 29, 2012   
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Returning from the Rio+20 Conference, sociologist Saskia Sassen sheds some light on the unique role that cities are playing in working towards a sustainable Earth.


At the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development last week in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20), the failure of states as our key environmental policy actors was again on display. With the health of the biosphere hanging in the balance, national governments’ failure to make significant progress in addressing our environmental challenges is troubling, to say the least. This failure, however, provides an opportunity to ask a tough question: If not nation states, which actors are capable of generating a path to a sustainable future?

The answer, I believe, is cities.

Cities are rarely factored into international negotiations about environmental sustainability or global environmental governance. At global forums, they are reduced to the “local level,” relegated to the bottom of the institutional hierarchy that runs through the nation state. This is puzzling. Yes, cities are the source of most environmental damage – and some of the most intractable conditions that feed that damage – but they also have unique properties and capacities that will enable them to reduce it.

Unlike nation states, city mayors from diverse countries are able to have productive discussions about environmental sustainability without being bogged down by national interests. While national governments have talked and argued, city mayors have moved to act. In part, that’s because it is in cities that many of the global environmental challenges become tangible and urgent. But there’s more to it than that.

While national environmental policies tend to be broad – and thus not very helpful – cities are able to develop a variety of more specific and targeted policies to address environmental degradation. These policies are made even more effective as cities increasingly work together, engaging in cross-border collaboration to determine best practices. Mayors at the Rio+20 Conference, for example, had no trouble comparing notes and brainstorming next steps.

This inter-city approach to addressing environmental sustainability bypasses much of the often fruitless debate found in international forums, and shows more promise for achieving concrete results in the short term.

While advances in science and technology are providing us with an increasing number of sustainable solutions, cities are much better able to implement these practices than nation states, whose spheres of action are in many ways more removed from daily life.

Cities can be part of the solution by addressing problems that exist on a local level. Copenhagen, for example, uses a kind of fuel produced from the city’s organic garbage to power its buses and trucks. An American company, Waste Management, is doing the same with its garbage-collecting trucks. While these are just two examples, imagine the amount of traditional fossil fuel that would be saved if fleets of trucks in other cities around the world dealt with their garbage in this way.

What this shows is that cities can take what is currently a negative (such as the burden and cost of managing organic waste) and use it to make a positive (such as fuel for city trucks). Solutions produced at the local level can then be applied on a global scale, contributing to the international effort to become more environmentally sustainable.

Cities will need to make significant changes to their social, legal, and economic policies in order to fully implement these sorts of scientific and technological approaches to environmental sustainability. But while doing this will not be easy, scientific discoveries, new approaches to planning, and increasingly willing urban leaderships make it feasible.

What we need now is a third approach to environmental policymaking – one that is not exclusively the purview of nation states or cities, but that promotes the development of new urban capacities and cross-urban collaboration and seeks to implement these best practices in cities around the world.

Saskia Sassen is a professor of sociology and the co-chair of The Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. She is the author of numerous books, including The Global City (Princeton University Press, 1991/2001). Foreign Policy Magazine named her one of the 100 Top Global Thinkers of 2011.
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