The Interactive City


Jepson and Edwards identify three traditional approaches to sustainable development: new urbanism, smart growth, and the ecological city. Their study shows that planners do not agree on which of these three approaches would be best in order to meet the 14 principles they believe “capture the essential land-use dimensions of sustainability that are applicable to all communities.” Thus, the planning profession has to find a hybrid approach that would combine characteristics of each approach.

However, in the words of Melissa Mean, Director of the Demos Cities Program, I believe that “What has been missing so far in the story about innovation in cities are the human and neighborhood dimensions.” Our guest lecturer this past week, Professor Toni Griffin, made a very similar point: sustainable development needs to be thought in terms of people, families, and neighborhoods. Planners need to think about what the residents needs are and tailor innovations to fulfilling those needs. Furthermore, it is also important to think about who the city is for beyond its current residents and thus also take into account the needs of the population moving to this urban area. Overall, the goal is to promote a city where people want to live.

That is what Camponeschi presents in The Enabling City: a bottom-up approach that seeks to redefine citizens as participants instead of consumers. The City 2.0 idea envisions a local government that has citizens and their communities at its core and enables development through collaboration, innovation, and participation. Through projects like the Yellow Arrow project, these three concepts come together engaging the community in new original ways. Interactive projects like these have become popular platforms for public expression and experimentation all over the world. In Boston, “The Pulse of the City” was put into place by a street artist to “promote the use and celebration of public space in an uplifting and imaginative way;” in Lisbon a “dancing traffic light” made waiting at the red light more enjoyable; and a mistletoe drone had San Franciscans kissing at Union Square. Although it does not involve any interaction, the Bay Lights has been very well received, making San Franciscans prouder and strengthening their sentiments towards their city.

These are all innovative and unique ideas that seem to engage all residents, with no distinction of race, income, or age. So, what if we presented planning processes as street-art projects, engaging all members of the community? Maybe cities should start hiring these artists, these “outside-the-box” thinkers, to develop new ways to involve the community and promote participatory planning.


Who knows best?


Following the paths of least resistance, governments and corporations often locate polluting facilities in urban and rural settings that disproportionately disfavor poor minorities. Communities affected by such health disparities hold the knowledge and experience required for companies, regulators, and policymakers to manage the adverse effects of their practices.

Mill Creek, Philadelphia – a city with harsh socio-economic conditions and racial discrimination, “was laid waste by the flow of water and capital and the violence of redevelopment and neglect.”[1] Experts and regulators failed to identify the slowly unrelenting infrastructural failure. The San Francisco Bay Area’s analysis of  toxic air releases found consistent health disparities according to race. These findings affirm a substantial body of evidence which have found correlations between polluting facilities and minority communities since the late 1970s and motivated community responses. It is through such community engagements that local knowledge is enhanced to produce change.

Having a particular social group consistently suffer from environmental hazards isn’t simply unsustainable but also against the principle of environmental justice that “all people and communities are entitled to equal protection of environmental and public health laws and regulations.”[2] While no one individual may be responsible for targeting such communities, biased policies and regulations have created systematic health inequities. This is deeply connected to factors of income, land use, and power dynamics that, together, strongly influence the decision-making process determining where polluting facilities may go. Thus, “differential access to political power and policy voice”[3] combined with a historic legacy of structures based on race have created an environment which systematically disfavors minorities and people of color.

Resulting from this, movements that began in the 1970s to address such issues now challenge “the exclusive nature  of environmental decision-making.”[4] These recognize that traditional technocratic methods of assessing impact are insufficient for fully understanding local problems. Instead, qualitative information and local knowledge are also fundamental to the development and implementation processes for minimizing inequalities and decreasing exposures to potential environmental hazards. Through processes of co-production and leveraging the local expertise of “street science,” policymaking can holistically include the partial and plural positions of professionals and lay people.[5] The active participation and inclusion of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income for the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies can ensure the mitigation of environmental hazards. For instance, Fisher et al.’s GIS analysis of air toxics in West Oakland presents a traditional analysis that, when combined with community members, was able to achieve positive health outcomes.[6] But their methodology lacked a wholly inclusive participatory model that used local knowledge throughout their process. Instead, examples such as those in Greenpoint/Williamsburg and Mill Creek illustrate the ways in which locals and “experts” can cooperate for the production of knowledge.  Planners must go beyond superficial community meetings that superficially hear laymen’s opinions without including them in the decision-making process. Only then will communities and policymakers be able to balance economic development with social justice and environmental protection for sustainability.

Furthermore, this is a process which must not stop once a decision is taken. As impacts and consequences evolve, unanticipated changes may often occur. Such situations require adaptive planning and adjustments that consistently integrate communities’ plight. An example of such an endeavor could be found in the Richmond Bay Campus planning process. Using a variety of resources and paths to engage with and analyze the potential impacts of the campus expansion, communities have been informed, involved and integrated. As the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society (HIFIS)’s reports explains, potential benefits from improved neighborhoods and rising property values bring risks of displacement and gentrification. With these are tied problems of increased car use and greater overall emissions. While anticipating such issues during planning processes is critical, communities must continue to stay involved even after an agreement has finalized a decision to ensure its ensuing consequences are properly administered.

Environmental justice is not simply about toxic facilities and polluting industries, but about place-based determinants that influence people’s quality of life. From the availability of quality food to the decreased options for public transportation, power dynamics consistently shape the capabilities people have based on factors outside their control. In the growing age of the city, understanding the effects such choices have on people will greatly contribute to improved targeting and leveraging synergies for positive cumulative impact.

[1] Spirn, Anne. 2005. Restoring Mill Creek: Landscape Literacy, Environmental Justice and City Planning and Design. Landscape Research, Vol. 30, No. 3, 395 – 413, July.

[2] Bullard RD. 1996. Symposium: the legacy of American apartheid and environmental racism. St. Joh’s J. Leg. Comment. 9:445-74

[3] Pastor, M. J. Saad, R. Morello-Frosh. 2007. Still Toxic After All These Years: Air Quality and

Environmental Justice in the San Francisco Bay Area. Center for Justice, Tolerance &

Community, University of California, Santa Cruz.

[4] Water and Environmental Justice. 2012. The Pacific Institute

[5] Corburn, J. 2005. Street Science.

[6] Brulle, R. & Pellow, David. 2005. Environmental Justice: Human Health and Environmental Inequalities. Annual Reviews Public Health. 27:103-24



According to the UN, 54% of the global population currently lives in urban areas.[i] Since this number is projected to keep rising in the years to come, UN Habitat urges that, “As the world becomes numerically more urban, it is important that governments accept urbanization as a positive phenomenon and an effective means for improving access to services, as well as economic and social opportunities.”[ii] In many global cities, people’s search for these services, along with economic and social opportunities, has resulted in the formation of informal settlements or “slums” like pictured here. 

Calling these communities “slums” has raised concerns over terminology. Alan Gilbert says, “the word is dangerous because it confuses the physical problem of poor quality housing with the characteristics of the people living there.”[iii] This points to the fact that issues faced in these communities can often revolve around housing (like number of units, durability, crowding, and tenure) and amenities (like air quality, water supply and quality, sanitation and solid waste disposal, electricity and energy, transportation and roads, communications, open spaces, and safety). These aspects are critical because they are essential to health.[iv] Regardless of the term used for these areas (for the purpose of this blog post “slums” will be used due to the lack of a widely recognized or agreed upon term that implies the same meaning), the lack of services can produce both problems and opportunities to implement future city plans more sustainably.

Professor Peter Newman provides an example of this when he challenges the conventional notion of urban water systems. For water systems in both developing and developed countries he suggests, “an alternative which uses new small-scale technology and is more community-based.”[v] This brings up the question: What if leapfrogging innovative technologies and ideas to providing amenities sustainably could happen seamlessly between poor/rich parts of cities, between poor/rich cities, and between the developing/developed world? Wouldn’t this bilateral exchange of information ultimately impact global sustainability?

Lack of amenities is not the only issue faced by people living in slum communities – poverty is probably referenced the most. From absolute poverty (in relation to survival), to relative poverty (difference in standard of living from society), or urban poverty (referencing lack of infrastructure, services, safety nets, rights of the poor), global cities fight economic inequality of slums. Though income may be important, measures and targets like the Human Development Index (HDI) or Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have included other indicators. Also, the emerging study of happiness is showing that there are other factors to wellbeing (many are explored in the documentary Happy). Countries like Bhutan are embracing philosophies like Gross National Happiness, and the Happy Planet Index, which rates happiness and sustainable living together.

Though happiness should not be ignored, the question of the effects of poverty on the environment still remains. How can communities be expected to sustainably manage their environment when survival is paramount? David Satterthwaite brings up the point, “that there is little evidence of urban poverty being a significant contributor to environmental degradation but strong evidence that urban environmental hazards are major contributors to urban poverty.”[vi] How can the “green” and “brown” agendas recognize their intersections and commonalities in order to elevate the living conditions of people and communities while protecting and caring for the environment?


[i] UN Economic & Social Affairs 2014. World Urbanization Prospects.

[ii] UN-Habitat 2010. Planning Sustainable Cities: Global Report on Human Settlements.

[iii] Gilbert, Alan (2007). The Return of the Slum: Does Language Matter? International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.

[iv] Cairncross et al. 1990. The Urban Context In The Poor Die Young: Housing and Health in Third World Cities. London: Earthscan Publications Ltd.

[v] Newman, P. (2001). Sustainable urban water systems in rich and poor cities-steps towards a new approach. Water Science & Technology, 43(4), 93-99.

[vi] Satterthwaite, D. (2003). Rethinking Sustainable Development: The Links between Poverty and the Environment in Urban Areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Annals, 590, 73-243.