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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The car killed Detroit

4129808416_eb14033725_zGiants also fall. The latest urban disaster took place in Detroit: the former ‘Car Capital of the World’. After the city’s bankruptcy application in July 2013, politicians in Latin America suddenly grew nervous. Our city planners are often inspired by trips to the USA where, speaking what they call fluent English (in Miami, for example), they pick up the ‘latest thinking’ and then turn our cities into replicas of Detroit.

The ‘Paris of the West’ was once an icon of the US urban model. In other words, anything but sustainable. For example, the city killed its public transport system (selling all its trams to Mexico City in the 1950s), while pushing the idea that bloated boat-like cars equal power and freedom. While in Amsterdam, ‘crazy’ youngsters were blocking streets, demanding better cycling infrastructure, in Detroit, they demanded highway extensions. Continue reading

The Post-2015 Development Agenda: New Goals, New Questions

On 30 May 2013, the High-Level Panel assembled by the UN Secretary General published its recommendations for the post-2015 development agenda. The document outlines both a general view on the future of global development (culminating in the five ‘big, transformative shifts’) and a list of goals and targets to follow up on the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The new list is longer than the original: there are now 12 instead of eight goals, and 53 instead of 21 targets. Two clear observations can be drawn from this sheer rise in numbers. First, the increase may be interpreted as an indication of a wider and higher level of ambition. Coming from this group of eminent persons, including many political leaders, this is a positive factor. Despite attracting various critiques, the MDGs have been a positive focusing device for policy and thinking about policy. By increasing the scope of goals, this focusing function is potentially stronger because it will affect a larger set of relevant issues.

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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

We Are What We Eat: How To Break Our Bovine Habits?

When travelling it’s good to pay attention to local lifestyles, because what people eat and buy reflect a very intimate aspect of our societies. More and more, however, I’ve seen the same chicken soup, the same toothpaste, and the same soda in (more or less) the same plastic packaging in supermarkets wherever I go, be it Albania, Dubai or Ethiopia. Meanwhile I’ve seen kids scoffing the same Big Macs as far afield as Russia and Turkey.

What's Russian for Big Mac?

It’s no secret that a dozen corporations have managed to become worldwide consumer ‘standards’, so that millions of people now eat pretty much the same ‘thing’ in any big city. On the one hand we’re locked into synthetic seeds from Monsanto, and on the other the ‘always low prices’ from Wal-Mart.

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First Impressions: Press Review February 2013

Welcome to our internal press review, featuring the latest publications by UNU-MERIT and its School of Governance: from working papers to policy reports to entire books. Expect more from ‘First Impressions’ at the end of every month.

February 2013 brings five new working papers, on issues ranging from IQ performance to innovation capacity to fixing the global climate. Geographically, the focus spreads from the Netherlands to Brazil and across 24 developing countries.

Pakistanis affected by their country's widespread, torrential floods receive wheat flour and other provisions from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Alipur, in the Muzaffargarh district of Punjab Province. 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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