Why ‘degrowth’ redefines riches

August 20th marked a watershed for all humanity: by that date we had used all the natural resources that our earth could replenish in 2013. Since August 21st we’ve been ‘borrowing’ from 2014 — essentially taking from our children and future generations. Not only will we not pay, but next year we’ll carry on consuming ever more of our natural resources faster than the earth can replenish, making this sad ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ fall ever earlier in the year.

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Latin America’s Silent (Two-Wheel) Revolution

More and more Latin Americans are finally on the verge of buying cars, thanks to a historic combination of rising salaries, higher availability of credit, and decreasing prices of motor vehicles. For many it’s a ‘life dream’ come true. But what do we lose in the process? What are the side-effects for public health and city spending?

The clearest impact is on public health: the more people cycle, the healthier they are; and having societies that avoid global trends in diabetes and obesity translates into major savings for governments. For example, the WHO estimates that in any given year, regular cyclists (i.e. cycling 3 hours/week, 36 weeks/year, or 108 hours/year) are on average 28 per cent “less likely to die from any cause than non-cyclists”.

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Urban Mobility: What Can Latin America Learn from East Asia?

The cities of Latin America have much in common with the sprawling urban centres of the Far East, despite being two very different worlds. In terms of mobility, there is a lot to be learned: do we follow the example of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, where more than 90 per cent of daily trips are made by motorbike? Or do we bow to central Tokyo, where 91.8 per cent of daily commuting trips are made by bus or rail?

From Asia, we can foresee the future for Latin American cities. There are at least two development alternatives: (i) bet on an economic model that aims to ‘grow’ first, and ‘clean’ later, usually tied to high rates of motorization, or, (ii) ensure a sustainable trend from the outset with urban development that balances economic growth, social equity and natural resource protection.

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Walk the Line: How to Reclaim our Public Spaces?

At some point every day, we use the most ‘human’ form of urban transport: our feet. Walking has always been the basis of human mobility and even now, in our mistaken belief that ‘development’ has to mean cities filled with highways and polluting vehicles, pedestrians are still fighting for recognition.

For many, this battle has intensified since the 1960s, thanks to Jane Jacobs’ book The Life and Death of Great American Cities. This challenged the US model of towns built for cars while criticizing previously ‘untouchable’ architects such as Le Corbusier and Robert Moses. Indeed, Jacobs’ public protest against Moses’ plans to build a highway over Washington Square Park in New York City is now legendary. Frustrated by the protests, Moses declared: “There is nobody against this. Nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers.” In the end, the mothers won!

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First Impressions: Press Review March 2013

Welcome to our monthly internal press review, featuring the latest publications by UNU-MERIT and its School of Governance: from working papers to policy reports to entire books.

Our March output includes 10 working papers, four journal articles, two PhD theses, and two research reports for the European Commission and United Nations Development Programme. For innovation, topics range from the aerospace industry, to nanotechnology, to R&D patents and productivity. For governance, we look into urban sustainability, economic vulnerability, and communities of learning. Geographically, the focus spreads from Latin America, through Europe and the Arab world, via Singapore to China, drawing on real-world data from more than 160 countries.

Students from the Khan Younis Training Centre in Gaza, run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), test drive a Formula 1-style car they have built, mostly out of recycled parts. Continue reading

Cold Turkey for Cars in Mexico?

“Poor Mexico. So far from God, so close to the United States,” declared Mexican President Porfirio Diaz in the late nineteenth century. His words passed into history, summing up the interdependent relationship of these two powerful countries.

Today, as well as losing massive territories from California to Texas, modern Mexico is still overshadowed by its northern neighbour. For decades nearly all major Mexican cities have followed the failed US model of urban development: sprawling car-dependent cities with urban centres fractured by highways and overpasses. Besides destroying quality of life and human interaction in historic districts, this model is incredibly devastating precisely because it is self-perpetuating: more cars call for more highways; more insecurity in the centre causes more people to flee to the outskirts.

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Addis Ababa: What Drives the Diplomatic Capital of Africa?

Find a good map and you’ll see that Ethiopia sits on a similar latitude as Colombia, both firmly embedded in the tropics. Moreover, being the 26th largest country in the world, this African nation is almost the same size as Colombia.

Fortunately for its inhabitants, a large part of its territory includes the high Ethiopian massif, a mountain range system soaring between 1500 and 3000 metres above sea level, boasting blessed fertile lands. This explains why some of its most important products are – once again similar to Colombia – coffee, beans and sugar cane. If that’s not enough to ignite your curiosity, here’s another fact: the capital, Addis Ababa, stands 2400 metres above sea level (much like Bogotá, located ‘2600 metres closer to the stars’).

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The Mythical City of Curitiba: Still a Model of Sustainability?

Curitiba, the capital of the Brazilian state of Paraná, remains in the minds of many as the great Latin American triumph in urban sustainability. Although these types of city brands are hard to attain, they can easily be lost.

There are many reasons why Curitiba Flickr / Mathieu Struckbecame recognized as the world’s most sustainable regional capital. Firstly, the urban revolution in the city started around the mid 1960s with a plan that sought to encourage urban growth corridors along mass transit routes. The plan emerged under the military dictatorship, and was effectively rolled out – and respected – until the late 1990s.

The continuity in public policy implementation owes much to the fact that the same political group remained in power for so long; a group that shared the ideas of the legendary planner/politician Jaime Lerner. Thus, Curitiba achieved the still remarkable 54m² of green space per capita, collected 100% of door-to-door recyclable waste, and introduced the famous bendy buses that years later inspired the Bogotá Transmilenio.

Nowadays though, any foreign visitor to the city must wonder Flickr / M.Struckwhether the famous sustainability postcard remains the reality for Curitiba. The first impression when walking its streets is the outrageous number of cars, which have gone clearly exceeded the capacity of the roads. Today, Curitiba has the highest number of cars per capita in Brazil: one for every 1.4 inhabitants! The few bicycles roaming the streets have no choice but to use the restricted network of bike paths, originally designed to only connect the parks.

The famous tube stations and bendy buses are now overwhelmed by the sheer number of people moving en masse from the 13 surrounding municipalities to the city Flickr / Mathieu Struckcentre. Obviously, thefts are as frequent as in the subways of Paris or New York, and the lack of comfort – which has become the norm in URBS-administered public transport – succeeds in alienating car drivers.

Although the density and good maintenance of green areas are truly unparalleled in Latin America, challenges are increasing. Experts at the Catholic University of Paraná tell me that about 60,000 people in inner Curitiba lack access to the sewerage system (partly due to political infighting between various layers of government). Meanwhile experts from the city’s famous urban planning agency (the IPPUC) anonymously tell me that a decade ago local politicians dropped long-term urban planning, in favour of profit making from short-term elections. Meanwhile, rapid population growth in the metropolitan area of Curitiba only guarantees more chaos in the future.

Despite these problems, the city remains beautiful. It exhibits the characteristic incoherent order of many Latin American cities, featuring eclectic façades filled with long blocks of workshops, training agencies for models, and traditional bakeries, alongside banks with modern marble floors. Often, pavements are overrun by the roots of the araucária tree (fully protected against any logging), while the streets are covered with yellow and pink flowers that fall from the ubiquitous ipê trees. Unfortunately, this pedestrian space is also infested by parked cars, and drivers that leave their buildings as if they never imagined that a pedestrian would cross their path; a characteristic lack of civic culture that is commonplace in this continent.

While feasting on a feijoada – a local dish of stewed beans, beef and pork – I could not help but notice that a large number of candidates for the local October elections have taken the bicycle as banner campaigns. So the trusty bike rejoins the political scene amid talk of the rising price of gasoline and copious congestion. Could this be a way to revive the prestige of this wonderful city?

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 13 August 2012. Images: Flickr / Mathieu Struck / Carlos Cadena Gaitán. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.

‘Subway-free’ Buenos Aires

The cosmopolitan capital of Argentina is one of the largest cities in the world. Every day its transport system needs to cope with over 13 million people living and moving around its metropolitan area.

Even having one of the largest metros in Latin America, for years, it has failed to provide enough capacity to move all the citizens who depend on it.The subway opened in 1913, in what was the first underground system in our continent.

Today it is a vital artery for a chaotic Buenos Aires, which has traditionally glorified the private car. Besides congested second level freeways, the city also boasts a couple of unusual urban roads: the widest (‘9 de Julio’) and the longest (Rivadavia) in the world.

It is not sufficient to navigate through the traffic jams, which are so characteristic of most great cities of the world, to really understand the mobility challenge there. For the authentic ‘porteño’ commuter experience, you need to take the subway during rush hour.

As the lines of the subway system are connected with several other commuter rail lines and bus stations, carriages soon fill up during the first few stops. One must pray for a miracle to find a space starting from the third or fourth train station. The crowding is acute and the lack of lack of personal space oppressive.

However, the system works well enough. The locals, though blinded by their uncomfortable journeys, still reach their destinations. Now, imagine this great city without the metro – would it continue to function?

Since political fights have no limits in creating disruptions, the great fear of many came about during the first two weeks of August: the subway went on strike and closed down completely for 10 days! The urban mobility system collapsed (obviously).

Fortunately, since the last subway strike, a new mode of transport has been strengthened in Buenos Aires. In recent years they have built around 80 kilometres of protected bike paths (i.e. permanent structures with high kerbs to protect cyclists from traffic). These are part of an initial plan to build 100 interconnected kilometres, mainly aiming at universities and public buildings.

With the strike, many ordinary citizens decided it was the perfect excuse to dust off their bikes, or to rent one of the thousand public bicycles, with which the city complements its network of bike paths. Some local newspapers reported a doubling in demand for these public bikes during the strike; a pleasant surprise.

When the strike finally ended, having plunged the Buenos Aires streets into unprecedented chaos, no politician was left unscathed. According to a survey carried out by Opinión Autenticada, 40.3% of locals held the national government responsible for the subway strike, while 28.2% blamed the city government.

The political fight during the conflict, sustained between President Kirchner and Buenos Aires Mayor Macri (former president of Boca Juniors football club), left no one unscathed. By contrast, it only reminds us of the importance of shielding urban transport systems from the strategic interests of politicians. After all, it is only us – ordinary citizens – who lose out in these kinds of crisis.

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 27 August 2012. Images: Flickr / Michele Molinari / Eric Illuminaut. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.