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!


Pro-Poor Sustainability Planning


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.

Grasping at straws: Is there hope for humans and food in the age of globalization?


Watch: “Preparing to Feed the World”

This is a fluff piece on a fertilizer factory in the United States. The Koch brothers are set to spend $898 million this election cycle. The profits to be made from reduced regulation explain why this number is so large and could be a sign of things to come.

Watch: “The new way of colonialism in Africa”

This is a report done by NHK, a Japanese news station, which helps explain the rise in land grabbing. Understanding the scale of this issue is key to understanding why it is so problematic, you have to see how large these plantations are to believe.


Today, in the world’s newest country, 40,000 people are on the brink of death due to starvation. South Sudan has suffered one of the world’s bloodiest civil wars in recent history, forcing an estimated 2.8 million people from their homes, who according to the UN now face “acute food and nutrition insecurity.” This catastrophe, while predicated on unnecessary violence, is also impacted by a globalized food system that has hindered the third world’s ability to feed itself. This transformation falls within a familiar pattern of capitalist maximization of profits, and erosion of oversight and social protection. The prioritization of agricultural land for biofuels, monopolization of farming corporations, and heavy investment from major economic powers bent on securing resources for their populations, has forced many traditional food sources to the brink of collapse. Today, South Sudan is facing a famine of epic proportions, but as climate change and disease influence the worlds growing abilities, even first world countries which historically have been insulated from drought and inflation might be victims as well. The question then could be, is there a sustainable way to provide food and nutrition for the world’s population?

Perhaps no one reading this is surprised by a link being drawn between a civil war and the food system, but for many Americans, food is associated with cartoon characters and brightly colored packaging, not starvation and war crimes. The idea that consumer choices here might lead to the situation in South Sudan is unsettling. However, consumers only bear so much responsibility. It is the producers who are dictating what we choose to consume in the first place, through pricing, advertising and politics. For example, the recent blending of the food system with the fuel industry has profoundly influenced agriculture. According to the Oakland Institute 30% of the global wheat and grain market is represented by corn, grown in the United States for ethanol. Biofuels are one of many causes for “land grabs” an instance when vast tracts of land are purchased in developing countries to grow crops, which are then exported. Corporations take advantage of antiquated land right systems and weak non-democratic governments, buying or leasing land for a price far below the profits made by cultivating and processing food and fuel. According to a study conducted by Klaus Deininger, land was leased in Mozambique for $0.60 per hectare, far below the estimated value of $9,800.00 per hectare.

With such a problematic food system, the question is often asked is there any way to separate a geographic entity from the larger system of production. One possible way to insulate communities is to “go local” or to condense the production and consumption of food into a finite geographic area. On the surface, this seems like a clear way forward towards sustainability, however Born and Purcell point out “localness of a food system should not be seen as having any inherent qualities – it is merely a strategy that can be applied by any group of actors to advance particular agendas.” Even with good intentions, limiting fossil fuel consumption by reducing distance travelled is not enough. Modern agriculture relies on pumping water, fertilizer, pesticides and mechanical machinery, all which depend on fuel. Due to the unsustainable nature of biofuel production and land grabbing, local attempts at full disinvestment are impossible without using renewable energy, which requires incredible capital. Everything is linked, in some way, to the global food system.

Modern agriculture also relies on scaling up of production, and the larger the scale, the more profitable. Thus, on the surface, small scale seems like an easy answer to the problem. Connely, however, makes a link between the need to pay for hidden costs in food development, and the subsequent pricing out of lower income communities. In other words, even if local food systems are managed sustainably, they inevitably will stay small, or will be forced to cater to middle class consumers to cover the gap in profits between them and their competitors. As lower income consumers are priced out, we see greater inequality in health. As soda prices go down and produce prices rise, wealthier individuals will have a greater ability to eat healthy. Therefore, going local is a good place to start, but until it adequately addresses and insulates entire communities from the food system, these actors will still be buying in to the current means of production on some level.

The inevitable priority in modern agriculture is not just to scale up in physical size, but also to transition to monoculture crops which take little knowledge to grow, but are extremely lucrative in the global marketplace. Unfortunately, this scaling up often comes with worsened social and environmental consequences that are felt locally, as well as throughout entire regions of the planet. In his book; The African Land Grab, Lorenzo Cotula details the ways in which globalization has prioritized large-scale agriculture. “These evolutions… They tend to squeeze small-scale farmers – by putting downward pressures on their profit margins, by eroding their control over farming decisions, by directing capital towards their large-scale competitors, or by displacing them altogether through large-scale plantations.” This displacement is most troubling, and has clearly caused food security problems in Eastern Africa, as well as around the world. Losing the knowledge of traditional practices is not just a human rights violation, but is actually a negative impact on the global economy. Indigenous cultures farmed and produced food for thousands of years. Yet, this expertise is not valued whatsoever, and the lessons that might be economically lucrative are lost.

Another approach to this global problem came about in recent years in the cities of Richmond and Berkeley, California. Both introduced legislation aimed at increasing taxes on sugary beverages sold within the city limits. The idea behind this was to protect lower income communities from the growing rates of obesity and type II diabetes, both health problems associated with overconsumption of sugar. While the measure was defeated in Richmond, in large part due to political campaigning by the food and beverage industry, it did pass in Berkeley. Unfortunately, this legislation is another example of the inability to address food justice concerns within a distinct geographic limit. There are simply too many loopholes in this attempt at reform; consumers can go to neighboring communities to shop for cheaper sugary beverages, and there is little evidence that the price increase isn’t passed on through other products. The isolation of a single commodity is also problematic. Although the attempt is made to focus on an ingredient detrimental to health, specifically for low-income communities and youth, it doesn’t get at the complexity that has caused a deterioration of health such as the emergence of processed foods and preservatives in our diet.

Michael Pollan, an award winning food author who lives in Berkeley, warns against the industrialization of agriculture and the monopolization of food production. He talks about how historically bread was a staple of nutrition for the human diet, and only because of the scaling up of production did it become unhealthy due to it being highly processed. “The problem with whole grain is that it goes bad…white flour is stable, so you could mill it anywhere, and it sits on the shelf for years. Whole grain flour is volatile, because it has all these volatile oils. It has omega-3s, for example. And, you know, its helpfulness is directly tied to its perishability. So they didn’t like that, and they were happy to get rid of whole grain.” Thus, in the name of maximizing profits, corporations turned bread from a civilization-founding staple, to something that is unhealthy. Most importantly, fermenting and baking bread takes free time, something that lower income individuals do not necessarily have. As indigenous peoples are displaced, they lose the resources they depend on: forests for housing, rivers for water, and the ability to grow wheat and bake bread.

Thus, the food system is too complex to attack any one commodity, even one as ubiquitous as sugar. Likewise, many efforts at reform attempt to address effects, but don’t get at the root causes of food security. Many countries are now at the mercy of climate change, as temperatures increase, and rainfall becomes unpredictable, growing wheat in the third world will become more difficult. Fluctuations in food prices can cause political instability. In Egypt, the price of local food increased 37% between 2008 and 2010, causing the Arab Spring. Despite this revolution, it didn’t create food security, as North African and Middle Eastern countries still import more food then any other region. In South Sudan, we are seeing likely the worst-case scenario of food insecurity. Fixing this problem, and making corporations accountable for the consequences of their land grabbing, is the logical place to begin in reorganizing our food and fuel system.

Luckily, there are some organizations focused on achieving food security and ending land grabbing. Oakland’s own Food First ( is a think tank that comes up with real solutions to problems afflicting farmers around the world. In Brazil there is Friends of the MST ( a non-profit whose work towards stability includes land right education and renewable energy expansion. There are also international non-profits such as GRAIN (, which details land grabbing and lists opportunities for political involvement.




The Contradictions of Environmental Gentrification


– Posted on behalf of A.R.:

In a recent debate in Milwaukee, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders said: “”As I understand it, the African American community lost half of their wealth as a result of the Wall Street collapse [during the most recent economic recession].” A large part of that wealth was held in the form of homes lost to foreclosure. The Urban Displacement project notes that 5 percent of homes in the Hoover-Foster neighborhood of Oakland were foreclosed between 2006 and 2014. This neighborhood has also been home to the highest concentration of Black households in the MacArthur area. Even among those who were able to keep their homes, more than three in four homeowners were mortgage-burdened in 2013 (meaning they paid more than 30% of their income on their mortgage).

According to the map, Hoover-Foster is “at risk of gentrification or displacement” while other areas in MacArthur, such as Longfellow and Pill Hill, are experiencing “advanced gentrification.” In addition to experiencing a shift in racial composition, MacArthur is also the site of a new transit-oriented development near the BART station. The Master Plan consists of five phases. The first focuses on infrastructure improvements including bike and pedestrian-friendly paths as well as beautification projects of the entry plaza. The second phase will add 90 new affordable housing units through a project with BRIDGE Housing, while phases three to five will include market-rate housing as well as commercial and retail space.

These types of transit-oriented developments attract state and federal funding and are considered “sustainable” because they are thought to increase transit-use and thus decrease VMT. Unfortunately, these developments are often marketed not towards transit-dependent or existing residents, but towards whiter, higher-income households with cars, one of many examples of the “contradictory relationship of sustainable policies to inequitable urban redevelopment” described by Checker (2011: 214).

I feel that the evolution of terminology plays a role in the de-politicization of environmental justice and the move toward technocratic dialogue. You have environmental/climate justice, then you have “smart growth” then “sustainability” then “livability” then “equitable development,” and as Brentin Mock points out: they are all often used interchangeably. Yet each of them sits in a different place along the triangle/prism and they all have different sets of values depending on who is using them and it seems our role as planners to expose these values and to bring back the role of “justice” in sustainability.

One of the only examples I have been exposed to of an equity- and people of color-centered vision of sustainability is the work of Oakland “artivist” Favianna Rodriguez. She was one of the first people I heard to really link racial, immigrant, gender and economic justice with environmental justice. She does so by calling out the ways in which sustainability discourses often lack serious equity considerations, leaving out those communities most directly impacted by environmental burdens and most susceptible to climate change-related catastrophes. In a 2008 piece titled “GREEN IS NOT WHITE!” she writes, how in the “booming multi-billion dollar ‘green’ market, immigrant workers and people of color are left out of decision making [procedural], while working in some of the most toxic industries in the country [substantive]. Green jobs and healthier communities cannot be just a luxury for affluent whites. They are a necessity for working class people and communities of color.” Through this lens, the mainstream “green” movement lacks both procedural and substantive equity, but centering those most impacted by capitalist exploitations is only the route to a truly “just city.”

It is not low-income residents that challenge the contradictions presented by “environmental gentrification,” but the right also exploits these contradictions in attempts to divert attention away from climate change entirely. Some folks celebrated the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar while other folks were happy to see him use the platform to assert that, “global warming is real.” But a Fox News article, circulated by some climate change deniers, was quick to point out the hypocritical nature of DiCaprio’s “environmentally-friendly” lifestyle choices. Though he bikes and drives electric cars, he also allegedly took six private flights from Los Angeles to New York in a six-week period in 2014—the same year he rented a yacht from the deputy prime minister of the UAE that purportedly burns through $16,438 worth of fuel a day to watch the World Cup with his friends. These value conflicts playing out at the micro-level of an individual are illustrious of those that play out at the city- and regional-level. If “green amenities” are reserved only for those with yachts and second homes and not for those who collect and recycle cans for a living, my answer to Checker’s question “how sustainable is sustainability?” is not very sustainable.