Social justice as the path to sustainable development


What would a more just and equitable United States look like in 2042? I would like to think it would look like sustainable development operating at the neighborhood level across the country, and that this would necessarily be occurring in a world that is finally moving closer to sustainability on a global scale. Globally and nationally, the poor are not major polluters—they consume less, drive less, waste less. Yet, at the global scale, wealthy, high consumption, nations account for the majority of pollutants. This has been paralleled within the U.S., with the continued location of polluting industries in areas of little political resistance or displacement of poor communities in favor of the interests of those with more economic power.

The most quoted definition of sustainability, from the World Commission on Environment and Development report, “Our Common Future” ( displays a concern for justice and equity in the concept of sustainable development by calling for an improved quality of life for everyone on one hand and meeting all the needs of those living in the present and those yet to be born.

While theoretical reflections about sustainability fill the literature and ad hoc efforts to measure sustainability abound, the fight for a just environment has operated in the real world in the social action and political organizing of communities. In the U.S. these have typically been poor citizens of color, and poor people in general, resisting the locating of toxic waste or polluting industries in their communities.

The fight reflects the resistance to what scholars have called the political economy of electoral strategy that promotes economic growth through land use patterns. The fight against the status quo has facilitated coalition building between sustainability advocates and social justice advocates, and there has been progress in terms of official policy responses to address environmental injustice at the federal level starting in the 1990s.

Conceptually, environment, economy and equity live in an uneasy balance though all three are needed in the sustainability equation, for social tensions caused by economic inequity undermine environmental stewardship. In the U.S, decision-making around where to site hazardous facilities, locally undesirable land uses (LULUs), and where to promote new urban development has historically excluded the groups most affected, while privileging business concerns and turning the profit motive into government priorities. This pattern has left a legacy of hazardous and undesirable facilities located in vulnerable communities already suffering from intensive capital underinvestment.

However, as Robert Bullard and others have documented, the concerns of environmental justice proponents soon moved beyond merely documenting the correlation of waste facility locations and their adverse impacts on the public health and well-being of neighborhoods of color to fighting the mechanisms that produce these disparities. These mechanisms included the legacy of legal racial segregation, discriminatory land uses, uneven law enforcement, exclusionary forms of decision making and economic deprivation, among other factors.

In fact, there is a distinct observable parallel between the social construction of space in the South African apartheid context, for example, which paralleled the American landscape with its history of de jure and de facto apartheid in residential segregation, Jim Crow laws and the institutional drivers of suburbanization. Those concerned with racial injustice in the United States made the connection between racism and the production of space through the environmental justice movement. Justice from this perspective is not only about reducing distributional inequity in space, but eliminating the conditions that produce injustice (such as overconsumption and the lack of participatory governance) in the first place.

The environmental justice movement and scholarship in the U.S. has been successfully able to link environment, class, race and gender into a coherent argument about the uneven exposure to environmental risks faced by individuals and communities. It is this civil rights framework that has allowed the movement to go beyond race to include anyone who is deprived of their environmental rights, so to speak, including the poor, immigrants, women, and children, which has been especially important in spreading the movement beyond America.

Scholars and advocates like Julian Agyeman and Robert Bullard have pointed out how the environmental justice framework has allowed for the recognition of the connection between environmental and social exclusion and exploitation. The concern of environmental justice advocates with a just environment and better quality of life and the processes that produce social inequality, have the best chance for pushing the sustainability agenda forward, as the concept of a just environment and better quality of life has the ability to mobilize a broad coalition of people.

For a socially just society to emerge in 2042, the systemic causes of environmental injustice must be addressed. As Graham Haughton and other environmental sustainability scholars have noted, sustainable development means redressing the cost transference within the current economic and political order that allows negative environmental impacts to be displaced, out of sight to poor (and, increasingly, immigrant) communities of color within the United States and around the world. Haughton identifies four types of environmental equity—intra-generational, intergenerational, geographical, and procedural—that we could use to evaluate our vision of a just society.

The realization of sustainable development will begin to be manifest on local and global scales, when all people are assured a minimal quality of life through the meeting of their basic needs, increased exposure to environmental “goods” and decreased exposure to “bads”, access to economic opportunity, and transformation away from political economic decisionmaking processes increase pollution and allow its costs to be transferred to socially and geographically distant spaces.

Much of the progress of environmental justice has been its success in locally mobilizing communities and advancing scholarship that untangles the links between social institutions and unjust outcomes. In practice, however, the movement in the U.S. has seen the unpredictable nature of legal decisions due to narrow interpretations of discriminatory intent and some reluctance on the part of the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce Title VI elimination of discrimination in its contracting due to pressure from the various states. The hope for 2042 lies in broad coalition building.

The most promising development along these lines that could lead to a just society in 2042 might be the broad right to the city movement ( , and its concerns with spatial justice. Ultimately, redressing past racial injustice and its manifestation as present spatial injustice means formalizing the rights of people who are poor, disenfranchised (through the lack of immigration documentation or interaction with the criminal justice system), and ethnically diverse, to claim space (–an act necessarily predicated on the state’s recognition of the universal right to a place in society, and a quality of life that includes a clean environment, access to health care, quality education, and shared investment dollars. The question of just what a society would look like is pertinent for anyone concerned with social equity. To achieve a just society, we should have a vision of it. For me, it would look like sustainable development realized.

[Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Race Talk blog of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity on May 27, 2012]


Critical infrastructure planning: How can we keep natural hazards from becoming disasters?



Last year I came across a City Lab article on Federal infrastructure funding for dams was a good food for thought.

I reflected on a piece I wrote in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake for no longer published Race-Talk blog of the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University (I’ll re-publish that piece on this blog). In that article, I pointed out the link between land use decisionmaking and the disporportionate impacts of natural disasters on the poor both between and within countries, citing earlier work on poverty and vulnerability by scholars Martine and Guzman in the aftermath of the devasation of Hurriance Mitch in central America.

And history repeats itself…(This is frustratingly and tragically too true for Houston and past research and warnings on flood risk there).

Going back to the dam failure that prompted the City Lab article: Aside from the terrible potential consequences for the 200,000 evacuees at the time if the Oroville Dam just outside of Sacramento didn’ hold, the quote that jumped out to me from the article at the time, among many:

“Of the nation’s 87,359 dams (as of 2013), about 17 percent (14,726 dams) are classified as high hazard potential—meaning that failure would result in loss of human life.”

They’re not all failing, but those are the 17% that absolutely cannot fail.

President Obama signed a Water Infrastructure Improvement Act bill into law before he left office, so thankfully there will be some grant money available for those high hazard dams, but the two main points of the article are that 1) the need to fix up Oroville damn has been known since at least 2005 and the state of California didn’t want to invest and convinced the Federal government to table the matter, and 2) Trump’s whole “one billion dollar” infrastructure plan (not sure if there really is a plan at this point) is based on tax credits for private investment. Not likely to drive the kind of investment our aging and critical infrastructure needs.

We’ve seen this in the limitations of the private market approach to rebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which disproportionately have negative impacts on the ability of income poor individuals and households to recover. A good overview of how market solutions end up huring the poor can be found in the case studies of post-disaster recovery in New Orleans and New York, by Gotham and Greenberg in their 2008 article, “From 9/11 to 8/29: Post-disaster recovery and rebuilding in New York and New Orleans” published in the journal Social Forces.

The state is a bulwark against the vagaries of the market, and also plays a critical role in ensuring that rebuilding, maintenance, and operations of infrastructure and related services are equitable in terms of who is serviced, impacts, and costs.

The recent hurricanes to strike Houston, the Gulf, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean also illustrate the challenges of infrastructure, and how we are neglecting one form of invisible infrastructure, something my colleagues at Berkeley (Harrison Fraker and former DCRP faculty Vicki Elmer) have labeled “Fifth Infrastructure,” harnessing the natural features of the landscape itself (floodplains, wetlands, open spaces and more). In this article, they show how fifth infrastructure can be used to create decentralized micro-utilities that use less water, generate energy from waste, and eliminate emissions at the scale of the neighborhood.

I’ve worked on projects utilizing anaerobic bio-digestion at the household level in African cities, in Nigeria, I set up a demonstration project with the wonderful boundary-pushing planner, TH Culhane and a team of colleagues from Nigeria and Germany.

The demo was an innovation of the balcony biodigester model developed by the Appropriate Rural Technology Institute (ARTI) out of India. It has great potential to meet waste management and energy needs for households, and so it was wonderful to see described by Fraker and Elmer a fully integrated concept operating at the mesoscale of the neighborhood.

In many parts of the world, flood management in the face of climate change is about destroying the homes and neighborhoods of the poor who live in non-durable housing, while building walls around the city, and paradoxically making the problem worse by allowing developers to build in natural flood plains. Better regulations, affordable and sustainable housing integrated in the urban core are part of the solution, as are new approaches and technologies that harness fifth infrastructure. Another colleague at Berkeley in Landscape Architecture, Kristina Hill, has mapped out typologies of coastal infrastructure that range from static to dynamic, walls to landforms. She wrote a good recent op-ed on Houston and Hurricane Harvey, too.

As long as we keep ignoring the promise and perils of the landscape in our planning, design, and construction, we’ll continue to court tragedy and face challenges in meeting the infrastructural needs of ever-growing urbanized regions.

As planners, if we combine an ethic that respects life and the primacy of the biosphere in its life-sustaining properties (a la Manfred Max-Neef), principles of equity and true engagement and co-learning with the communities we serve, along with the approaches of our colleagues in landscape architecture and urban design, and the possibilities of technologies and land we will find we have many more options at our disposal for shaping cities than we think.

Cities Will Give Definition to SDGs


2015 was a big year for global leaders to “commit” to sustainability and climate change.  In September of 2015, over 193 United Nation state members convened at the UN for the Sustainable Development Summit. The purpose of this convening was to formally adopt a new sustainable development agenda with the 3 major goals of (1) ending extreme poverty; (2) fighting inequality and injustice; and (3) fixing climate change. The meeting would establish seventeen sustainable development goals (SDGs) to address sustainability on three focal points of economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection. A few months later in December, more civil and state leaders, as well as leaders from the public and private sectors, met in Paris for COP 21. The convening closed with a new framework to address climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. Both convenings occurred at a particularly urgent time politically because you can’t address poverty without addressing climate change. World saved, job well done! If only it were that easy. Both these agreements are non-legally binding—which is the basic global equivalent of “scout’s honor.” Additionally, they are both quite broad turning global climate change adaptation into a game of “Marco, Polo.”

What is preventing these meetings from becoming just another set up for a future agenda?


How then can we move the SDGs  from being a game to actually being a transformative strategy plan?

cartoon-world-politics-sinuca-snooker-billiards-game-play-10 Source:

In the face of nations twiddling their thumbs post COP 21, the frontiers of climate change adaption and mitigation will be shaped and advanced by cities. They are already doing the work. Urbanization, especially within the Global South is on the rise. Although in 2014, the respective populations of Africa and Asia were mostly rural-living (40% and 48%), by 2050, those regions are projected to become urban by 56% and 64% respectively.  That will translate to a projected 2.5 billion people added to the world’s urban population, nearly 90% of which will be concentrated in Asia and Africa. (Source: UN). Cities, especially the growing mega-cities of the world are the epicenter of many sustainable planning shortcomings. The solution towards urbanization is not to avoid its complexity. The solution, though difficult, is to embrace it. After all, sustainability and its implementation is challenging and unwieldy.

Cities are the incubators to develop and prototype planning experiments of the SDGs. Of the seventeen goals, I’ve selected two with examples of how planning can incorporate and implement the SGDs.

Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

6.1: by 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking after for all

The sixth largest city of the Philippines, Zamboanga, faces unpredictable rains, worsening floods and drought, and storms that are all contributing to water insecurity and scarcity. As response, in 2012 USAID launched a program, Water Security for Resilient Economic Growth and Stability (Be Secure) to promote urban resilience to climate change. The project has incorporated various strategies including, building local adaptation capacity (i.e. monitoring and repairing leaks) and upgrading water infrastructure such as sewage systems to limit contamination of the local groundwater supply. Specifically, one of the strategies that also creates economic opportunity is to engage and train out-of-school youth to repair the leaks and perform other plumbing needs. This last example embodies the multiple sectors and solution thinking required to address water scarcity (Source: News Security Beat).

Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.

14.1 by 2015, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, particularly from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution.

In Beijing, China, the Ministry of the Environment (MEP) and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD) want to reduce the percentage of waters in urban areas designated as “foul and filthy” to less than 10 percent of the total by 2020, with clean up completed by 2030. The independent organization, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, who has done mapping work on air and water pollution want to harness citizen assistance through two different apps, Blue Map mobile app (created by IPE with government data) and We Chat.  Chinese citizens will be able to publicly see maps of polluted river sites (via the former app) and also contribute photographs and descriptions of potential polluted sites for investigation by MEP officials (through the latter app). Mobile technology can be an affordable and participatory way to gather data necessary for climate change solution.

An important mode of planning that cities will need to incorporate more vigorously and regularly is insurgent or radical planning. Insurgent planning is to give the tools of planning to non-traditional planners. The purpose of this planning is to allow the people who live and understand the context of urban problems best to be able to contribute thinking and action to their solutions. More so, allowing non-professionals to contribute to the planning process is an important component of climate justice and building equity into sustainability. For additional example of insurgent planning or “citizen scientists,” visit New Security Beat.

Zamboanga and Beijing represent two examples of cities taking steps forward to address climate adaptation through the urban lens. Although not explicitly detailed in this post, other cities that are tackling urban climate change include Quito, Ecuador, Durban, South African, and New York City among many others. Their successes and failures will provide models of climate change adaptation that other cities may look to and build upon. As cities lead the way in climate change adaptation, hopefully the climate change game of Marco, Polo will become less random, and more strategic. The world depends on it.



The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: a framework for inspiration


The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are both sweeping in their scope, as well extensive in their level of detail. According to the official press release, Dr Joan Clos, Under Secretary General and Executive Director of UN-Habitat, stated that “urban planning is in crisis today, but that, the principles and recommendations contained in the Guidelines can help to tie together different objectives while pointing to the crucial questions of equitable and sustainable development.” In its report, the Governing Council of the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN HSP) also explains that “the guidelines are intended to be a framework for improving global policies, plans, designs and implementation processes that will lead to more compact, socially inclusive, better integrated and connected cities and territories that foster sustainable urban development and are resilient to climate change.”

Many of the guidelines are general in nature, whereas others are fairly specific. For example, they include ensuring access to energy for all by the year 2030, while also doubling the rate of energy efficiency. They also call for reducing by half the total number of people living in poverty by 2030, while completely eliminating “extreme poverty.” Despite the detail and specificity of these ambitious goals, the UN HSP explains in its report that the goals are meant to serve as inspiration for urban and territorial planners, and that no international enforcement mechanism is currently in place.

The SDGs are all relevant to sustainable planners three main considerations of environment, economy and equity, and many relate to more than one of those considerations. The SDGs provide a framework for how planners can strive to balance all three considerations appropriately in order to include regional and global equity while promoting sustainability.

However, because of their ambitious nature, I predict that the practical applications of the SDGs will depend significantly on whether a given city, its state or its country chooses to adopt a legal framework to enforce these principles.

The changes required to meet these goals also vary considerably depending on location. For example, developed countries such as the U.S. may already possess the resources to provide clean water and sanitation to all residents, and we are simply waiting for policymakers to mandate it (as they failed to do in Detroit). In other countries, such as South Africa, the law has already mandated a universal right to clean water yet the government is struggling to build the infrastructure to deliver it. And in most nations the challenge has yet to be addressed in a uniform way on the national scale at all.

The SDGs do attempt to address these disparate difficulties in meeting development goals by asking developed nations to contribute a small but specific percentage of their gross national income to aid other nations with development (0.7 percent to all developing nations, and 0.2 percent to the least developed nations). However, without an enforcement mechanism it’s easy to imagine some of the more specific SDGs, including this one, falling by the wayside. Although the target year of 2030 is rapidly approaching, I’m hopeful that the UN will work toward creating a system to help enforce the SDGs on the international level, while providing strong incentives for nations to implement them at other levels of governance as well.

The greatest promise of the SDGs is that they present a more integrated planning framework than is currently found in most U.S. city plans, according to the literature. Schrock et al.’s article that assessed equity in local U.S. climate and sustainability plans found that as of 2015, most U.S. climate and sustainability plans do not address equity in any meaningful way. Meanwhile, Berke’s 2007 article surveyed general city plans to discover that most did not explicitly discuss sustainability. Clearly more work needs to be done to integrate the principles of sustainability and equity within planning for economic growth. Planners can refer to the UN SDGs in order to make their plans more comprehensive and more equitable, as well as to help articulate in detail to policymakers, the public and other stakeholders the benefits of an integrated approach that ties complex issues such as transit development, agriculture and building standards with equity. If the SDGs become the new norm for sustainability plan frameworks, it will constitute a major development over the status quo.

Post-2015: SDGs & “local” implications



Two major events occurred in 2015 in order to outline the next 15 years of the world’s environmental agenda:

  1. September 25-27, 2015: UN General Assembly which adopted a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  2. November 30 – December 11, 2015: The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

In this post, I focus on the SDGs and conceptualizations of their “local” implementation. I do this by looking at a critique of the MDGs by David Satterthwaite, unpacking some complications when considering “the local,” and revealing how the SDGs may address both of these concerns.

To begin with, for context, the video below by This Week in Global Health gives a short but insightful comparison between the MDGs and the SDGs:

In the early 2000s, David Satterthwaite highlighted contradictions of the MDGs, urban development, and development “experts.” I would like to consider his past insights to see how they may be relevant to the current SDGs. Satterthwaite (2003) wrote a paper titled, “The Millennium Development Goals and urban poverty reduction: great expectations and nonsense statistics.” One of his arguments is that “the institutional structures and processes of international donors and national governments can be incompatible with the effective achievement of poverty reduction.”

According to Sattherthwaite, the problem with institutional structures and processes include the disconnect between foreign “expert” planning and local implementation; the difficulty of monitoring local progress from far off international headquarters; and dumping of large funds versus the slow, discrete, and diverse allocation of funds needed on the ground. This highlights what seem to be classic tensions between top-down and bottom-up approaches and between the global and the local.

Satterthwaite is most likely not simplistically or blatantly saying that local is “good” and global is “bad.” His statements, however, hint toward this conclusion, making his arguments somewhat problematic.

Gillian Hart (2010) considers the evolution of “the local” as a concept in development rhetoric:

… the rhetorical focus of the [Basic Needs thrust of the 1970s] was on the relative efficiency of small-scale forms of production, what Mohan and Stokke (2000) call “revisionist neoliberalism” is marked by a convergence on “the local” as both more efficient and more democratic. The turn to “the local” has gone hand in hand with the invocation of “civil society” understood—in good liberal fashion—as a distinctively separate sphere from “the market” and “the state”, and a key site for the production of social capital.

Hart is not saying that a “convergence on ‘the local'” is necessarily bad or evil, but that there are contradictions, nuances, and complexities that need to be unpacked if the goal of focusing on “the local” is to be equitable poverty alleviation.

First of all, what is meant by “local”? As Henri Lefebvre has said, “The space that homogenizes has nothing homogenous about it.” One example of this is the phenomenon of elite capture in community-driven development projects, resulting from the heterogeneity of power in “local” spaces. Satterthwaite does not unpack this.

Second (and I believe Hart is emphasizing this), the focus on “the local” is at times coupled with a conceptualization that “the state” is inefficient and the process of “the market” naturally optimizes benefits. The state’s job then is to get out of the way and foster the growth of markets. Local areas then should make themselves appealing to businesses, like flowers are to bees. Those which are the most attractive become developed. There are multiple problems with this type of regime; the most blatant being that this kind of “development” does not consider social equity nor environmental sustainability.

So, this brings us to the SDGs.

No matter how much the United Nations (UN) reached out to “local” groups during their formation, the SDGs, like the MDGs, are inherently top-down when it comes to implementation. In this sense, Sattherthwaite’s arguments against the MDGs are relevant for the SDGs. I have two questions concerning this: Does there continue to be a tension between the global and the local in the SDGs? And, do the SDGs address Hart’s arguments about “the local”?

The above video has pointed out that the SDGs are more “horizontal” than the more “vertical” MDGs. What do they mean by this?

“Horizontal inequality” is inequality between culturally defined groups, while “vertical inequality” is inequality between individuals. Stewart (2002) argues:

Unequal access to political/economic/ social resources by different cultural groups can reduce individual welfare of the individuals in the losing groups over and above what their individual position would merit, because their self-esteem is bound up with the progress of the group.

A UN “Development Issues” report (Winkel 2015) states:

Much of the discussion of [horizontal inequality] is centered on issues of conflict between groups, whereas [vertical inequality] has risen as the much more common lens through which to view issues of inequality. Interestingly, a considerable part of the discussion of inequality in the SDGs actually concerns horizontal inequality, as there are many issues related to access and equal opportunity as well as a number of provisions against discrimination.

The SDGs focus a lot on being “inclusive” as well as equality for certain groups:

  • Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all
  • Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  • Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  • Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  • Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  • Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  • Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
So, what does this have to do with “the local”?

The SDGs’ focus on inclusivity can lead to a stronger need for global institutions to engage more intimately with local governmental and non-governmental institutions. This partially addresses some of Satterthwaite’s concerns. “Experts” from these global institutions would be compelled to move beyond simple models of utility optimizing individualized “Econs” (Thaler 2015) and tap into local knowledge about the dynamics between groups — and, first of all, what groups are important and why are they important in each context? This requires a dialectical process between global “experts” and local knowledge holders (à la Sangtin Writers and Gramsci).

The focus on more “horizontal” equality also addresses some of Hart’s concerns in two ways: (1) Since the focus is on groups and not individuals, heterogeneity within “the local” will become more apparent. For instance, instead of simply counting the increase in the number of individual children who go to school, for a more “inclusive and equitable quality education,” it must be asked from which social group does this increase come from and which groups are being excluded? (2) Goal 8 and 10 partially address some of the concerns related to “revisionist neoliberalism,” or the reliance on the natural process of “the market” for the development of “the local.”

In conclusion, the SDGs are an inherently top-down agenda, yet their success relies on their realization at the local level. Satterthwaite highlights this concern for the MDGs and Hart complicates the notion of the “local.” I believe that the SDGs address both their concerns, but of course not fully. What is not addressed I’ll leave for another blog post.



  • Gramsci, Antonio. “Prison Notebooks, Volumes 1-3.” (2011).
  • Hart, Gillian. “D/developments after the meltdown.” Antipode 41.s1 (2010): 117-141.
  • Lefebvre, Henri. The production of space. Vol. 142. Blackwell: Oxford, 1991 as quoted by Merrifield, Andy. Henri Lefebvre: A critical introduction. Taylor & Francis, 2006.
  • Sangtin Writers Collective and Richa Nagar. “Playing with fire: feminist thought and activism through seven lives in India.” (2006).
  • Satterthwaite, David. “The Millennium Development Goals and urban poverty reduction: great expectations and nonsense statistics.” Environment and Urbanization 15.2 (2003): 179-190.
  • Stewart, Frances. Horizontal Inequality: a Neglected Dimension of Development. WIDER Annual Lecture 5. (2002) Helsinki: UNU-World Institute for Development Economics Research.
  • Thaler, Richard H. Misbehaving: The making of behavioral economics. WW Norton & Company, 2015.
  • Winkel, John. Inequality and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Rep. no. 4. United Nations, 21 Oct. 2015. Web. <;.
Top image source: 

Lessons and Challenges in Transit Planning


As the populations of most countries continue to urbanize, planners are faced with the challenge of worsening traffic and air pollution conditions. Generally speaking, as incomes rise, more individuals choose to purchase vehicles. At the same time, congested roadways lead to decreased quality of life for a city’s residents, in addition to contributing to global climate change.

While rail systems have the advantage of being quiet and reducing congestion, they are often costly and time-consuming to build. For this reason, bus systems are often seen as a more practical solution for quickly providing well-connected and cheap public transportation on the local level.

The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Curitiba, Brazil was originally developed in the 1970s, and has won awards as recently as 2013 for smart green design. It utilizes transit-oriented development, linear corridors, carefully designed bus stops and buses with multiple entrances to increase efficiency and minimize idling, one of the primary sources of bus air pollution. According to official information, in a metropolitan area of 3 million people, 1 million take the bus each day, a large percentage compared to other cities:

Curitiba’s bus system is an improvement over less carefully planned systems. For example, the article on Environmental Justice in Transportation Planning discusses the impact that auto pollution has on the health of low-income and minority people. In the U.S., people in households earning less than $10,000 a year have a higher rate of asthma than those earning more, and the asthma mortality rate for African Americans is six times that for white Americans.

In many cases, idling buses contribute significantly to these health problems. For that reason, activists in West Harlem opposed a 1988 project that would have located a second diesel bus depot adjacent to junior high schools. They successfully advocated for clean energy alternatives, eventually resulting in the creation of the “Clean Fuel Bus” program in 2000. The MTA’s current fleet consists of a combination of hybrid-electric buses and those powered by natural gas.

Bill Clinton passed legislation in 1994 that calls on U.S. planners not to approve projects that disproportionately increase pollution in low-income or minority communities when other alternatives exist. The Waterloo case study, published some years later, demonstrates how planners can use GIS technology to assess an area’s particulate matter and noise pollution levels and examine their correlations with race and class before sighting new projects, something which was not part of the earlier West Harlem and Curitiba planning processes.

Back to the Curitiba example, despite its successes, the model also contains cracks. According to the article, the BRT never reached into Curitiba’s farthest, poorest suburbs. Furthermore, demographic changes in the city over time have challenged the core model.

In part because of the city’s planning successes, it has attracted migrants from elsewhere around Brazil, as well as become one of Brazil’s richest cities. Therefore, the model’s early successes have ironically contributed both to crowding of buses as well as a relatively high percentage of the population owning cars compared to elsewhere in Brazil. Simultaneously, this article suggests that the BRT system has not continued to receive comparable levels of government support over time, and that many vehicles are in need of repairs. Collectively these pitfalls to one of the core challenges of modern city planning: trying to plan for sustainability in a continually unstable and changing environment, with growing populations, shifting economies and changing political climates.

GIS information like that presented in the Waterloo case study would be helpful for planning transportation developments that are just and contribute to sustainability by ensuring that air pollution is kept below federal standards and that low-income and minority communities aren’t put disproportionately at risk. Ideally, planners would have access to projected information about population and economic growth as well – however, most of the time this is something that is difficult to predict more than a few years in advance. For most cities, a combination of rail and alternative fuel rapid buses can create the backbone of a strong and efficient public transportation system, distributing access to different areas of the city to promote even access and growth. Paired with public planning projects to encourage mixed-use developments near stations, this can encourage a transit-oriented development pattern with the potential to expand over time.

Realistically, in the foreseeable future most city’s transit systems will need to continually grow to keep pace with demand.  A well-funded public transit authority that is dedicated to principles of sustainability and environmental justice seems necessary to ensuring that transit systems are capable of growing and adapting with time. Possibly a degree of public involvement and oversight from a broad cross-section of the public can help ensure not only that environmental justice concerns are addressed, but also that planners are aware of and in a position to address the concerns of other communities. For example, the efficiency and comfort of a public transit system contribute to whether people with means choose to support the public system both with their individual consumer choices and with their votes as opposed to driving cars. And buy-in across many neighborhoods and economic levels could contribute significantly to a project’s success.

According to a recent news article, the Bay Area, pictured above, now has the third worst traffic of any U.S. city, San Francisco’s once-strong public transit system failed to adapt to changing demographic conditions. Adapting is key!