Pro-Poor Sustainability Planning

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Pro-poor sustainability planning is possibly the 4 words that requires the most unpacking this semester. As most of this semester has greatly scrutinized the concept of sustainability, so we can leave that aside.

However, how are we to understand poor? International convention (including multinational organizations such as the UN, World Bank, etc) have identified $2/day as extreme poverty, then there are also the concepts of housing, health, and time poor. How then, can policies be pro-poor? Ideally, this concept should be centered on the empowerment of people experiencing a type of poorness (economic, health, housing, time, etc), yet if that were the case, poor would not be so passive in this concept. Conjuring up an image of planning being done onto the poor. The passiveness of this term illustrates a type of top-down thinking, institutional forces acting upon not even people, but a quality that is not even self defined, but labeled.

In Kakwania and Pernia’s (K and P) article in trying to tackle this concept, the nice language of “policies and programs that mitigate inequalities and facilitate income and employment generation for the poor, particularly women and other traditionally excluded groups.” reeks of state driven neutral terms such as mitigate and facilitate, foreshadowing the style of analysis to come. The conceptualization of the poor in this case are non-actors, as the policies and programs are the actors that will facilitate income and employment generation.

It is precisely this thinking that Roy’s article challenges through the description of these traditional planning epistemology. That the informal is an unplanned space, that women and traditionally excluded groups are unplanned poor, both of which needs to be re-conceptualized in ways need to be recognized by the state and understood to be active actors.

Though K and P’s article goes on make a case against trickle down development, yet their definition of pro-poor growth can be described as such “Broadly, pro-poor growth can be defined as one that enables the poor to actively participate in and significantly benefit from economic activity.” Thereafter, rattling off a number of vague policy ideas, but nothing substantive. They conclude with an analysis the effects of these pro-poor policies in the most macro-sense possible, measuring GDP, incidences of poverty, and measuring the effect of inequality, in Laos, Thailand, and Korea.

The brilliance of economics is its ability to distill massive and chaotic life into neat and inert variables to explain a market based (which, in the field of economics, encapsulates everything) scenario. This also happens to be its worse quality as moving parts and actors are “held constant”.

If we are to truly conceptualize pro-poor policy we need to switch our mode of thinking of how planning applies to the poor, and what those goals should be. Are tools such as indices and indicators the best way to measure advancement of poverty alleviation? The approach of the state also inevitably brings along with it market forces that inevitably forces formality onto those being helped, and then summarily displaced, similar to the anecdote in Roy’s piece that even those who are resettled into government housing will give up their right to it because they do not want to live in a situation where an interruption of payment can strip away their rights.

Even one of the more radical forms of government, Bhutan, which concerns itself with Gross National Happiness is market based. However, there are anchoring philosophies that temper market forces to serve four main pillars which include sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and the establishment of good governance. What Bhutan identifies is the importance of the maintenance of the cultural and environmental components of their country as a part of how they measure “wealth”. Until more countries adopt these priorities, the chances of a pro-poor sustainability plan to address the complex nature of those living in close connection to the environment will not be successful.

Within our topics in metropolitan planning course, one policy that is seen as pro-poor is the creation of college savings accounts for all of its citizens. Matching funds have been proven to improve the rate of high school completion (6x) and college matriculation (3-4x). Yet Black and Brown students are dropping out of post-secondary education at greater rates than their peers. These policies also completely ignores the greater access to education of their Asian and White counterparts.

The universal college savings account is akin to the nature of pro-poor sustainable planning, issues arising from resource and service deprivation are addressed by band-aid approaches that fail to truly empower its intended audience.

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The Rise of Sustainability

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The very first time I encountered the concept of sustainable development was after another disenchanting quarter of economics courses at UCLA. It was my third year in undergrad and a degree in economics seemed inevitable. A friend mentioned the interdepartmental discipline of International Development Studies and it felt like stumbling into the best kept secret at school.

My conviction in the virtues of sustainable development and all its distant promises brought me to some of the most far-flung places on earth. There was passion, belief, and absolute certainty that this was what the world needed.

To be honest, the people in Bird Village weren’t the ones pushing the world to the brink of catastrophic climate change. These villagers, and about slightly less than half of the world’s population that still live in the rural environment, embody many practices that we would label sustainable.

(Minus ranchers that are razing rain forests for pastures/palm oil producing trees and other egregious exceptions)

So then it must be the cities where the concept of sustainability must be implanted. Imagine the mass of humanity in mega cities, with 20+ million people living, consuming, disposing, and reproducing. In an era which the preferred mode of living was in the urban setting, what did it mean to have sustainable development anymore?

The city of Berkeley deploys the Brundtland commission’s definition of sustainability, “A sustainable community is one that meets its existing needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (link). However, like many of those who encounter this definition of sustainability (including me), the planners of the city of Berkeley leave out the important qualifications to this definition of sustainability, as pointed out by Wheeler:

  • the concept of “needs”, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”

In preparation to apply to CED for the MCP program, I worked on the No On Measure R campaign, specifically directed at the preservation of the Downtown Berkeley plan (which was also previously called measure R). In engaging with the hyperactive public of Berkeley, their notion and concept of sustainable development as it relates to downtown Berkeley and the entire city were quite different. The voters that were in support of redeveloping the downtown Shattuck area (voting No on Measure R in 2014) did not have particularly strong feelings about the measure one way or another, and generally thought higher density, more housing and increased public transportation were positives. However, the people who were voting yes were adamant about limiting any kind of change to the area, regardless of meeting the housing needs of the local poor had a garden variety of reasons ranging from historical to environmental. They obviously had no desire to spare any of the city’s resource to help lower income residents.

The following op-ed is a fairly standard political piece on a position to take on an upcoming vote, but browsing the comments section is what makes Berkeley a unique environment as even trolling can be mistaken for a short history lesson:

Op-ed: Vote no on Measure R — it’s a misleading initiative

At the end of the day, Measure R was defeated by a wide margin (74% voted no). Yet it did not mean that the issue of sustainability has been resolved. A vocal minority continues to hold that sustainability is to protect the urban environment the way they found it, decades ago. The argument is not dissimilar to those between conservationists and preservationist, it is only lacking the personification of the urban environment that Merchant described as equating nature to a mother figure.

The development of downtown Berkeley lurches forward, with the backdrop of heavy gentrification pressure, as pointed out by the urban displacement project, will those units built in the downtown ease the housing pressure on the area’s poor? Most signs point to the fact that it will not as rents and real estate values continue to rise.

The current downtown Berkeley development plan calls for the development of 5-8 high rise mixed-use establishments, adding about 1,000 additional units to the supply starved east bay housing market (numbers were provided as an estimate in 2014). Parking would be decoupled from these high rise units and they would be built to match LEED gold standards. New investment would be brought to spruce up bus stops and increase bike lanes, density would be increased, and the affordable housing requirement currently sits at a pittance of 10%. I have yet to hear about the soft programming to accompany this development to provide training for future jobs or requirements by the city to locally source materials and labor.

The leadership in the city of Berkeley is seen as progressive by attempting to tackle climate change by doing what it can to limit the small amounts of CO2 produced in the city. From applying climate warning labels at gas stations (link) to creating an Office of Energy and Sustainable Development, the city cannot be faulted for not taking action on climate change. However, the end result in which the vast majority of pollution has long been relocated away from city limits, what can be done to accomplish sustainability in a city like Berkeley? A ten percent requirement of affordable housing will not do much to quell the explosive demand for housing, especially with the amount of lower income families and individuals in the region. It is as Agyeman stated that true sustainability does not merely address the symptoms of and unsustainable system, but rather at the causes from a social justice perspective.

Erik Swyngedouw gave a Marxist critique of the concept of sustainability in his article “Apocalypse Forever?”, the fixation of the public over terms such as sustainability prevents the discourse to question the fundamental way that we should organize societies.  How can we hope to address taming consumerist culture when we continue to believe that we are a technological fix, or a market oriented solution away? The challenge only becomes murkier as different groups co-opt the word sustainability as it fits their world view.