I have had a number of discussions with colleagues about the importance of addressing social equity and poverty wherever we are - in an industrialised country or a developing one - and about how important these are to sustainability. A post by Kaid Benfield earlier this week on the NRDC Switchboard drove home the point that every society has its vulnerable communities. He reviews a recent report titled Green Cities: How Urban Sustainability Efforts Can and Must Drive America's Climate Change Policies that points out that low-income areas in the US should not be ignored in sustainability strategies, both because there is real potential there for reducing emissions, and because there is an opportunity to improve social and economic conditions in these communities.
Having spent half my life in South Africa and the other half in Canada, I am familiar with conditions (and attitudes) on both sides of the industrial fence. South Africa happens to be a place where poverty and inequity are stark, so it draws people who want to do volunteer work in the "third world". My discussions on this tend to focus on pointing out that the everyday work we do (as planners, designers and engineers) can improve or worsen quality of life, and the implications for vulnerable communities are particularly significant. Just as I need to increase my awareness of how my work affects women, children, the elderly, the unemployed and those who face mobility challenges, so should my colleagues around the world.
The impacts might seem more extreme in South Africa, but one just needs to look at the battles that Jane Jacobs fought in Toronto, New York and elsewhere, over the divisive effect that road projects can have on local neighbourhoods, to see that social inequities can increase wherever planners don't consider the broader impacts of their decisions.
So before we consider providing aid as volunteers, let's make sure we understand what we are doing in our professional work. That's not easy in an era when our disciplines are so narrowly specialised, and integrated planning is more talked about than practised, but we need to try first where we understand the general context. Maybe then we can move out and empower people in other countries.
I would also venture to suggest that developing countries have a lot of knowledge to offer to others. Maybe it's from knowing that more livelihoods are at stake, or having a strong grasp of the value of community and indigenous knowledge - either way, many developing countries still have an edge that seems to have vanished from the industrialised world. Public sector priorities for community development projects in South Africa are often driven more by the recognition of human dignity than by the need for addressing individual human rights. There is even a programme for improving degraded public spaces, and it's called Dignified Open Spaces.
Picture: Old Mutual using dignity to sell financial services.
Human rights are important, of course, but if we focus on dignity we will almost automatically make planning decisions that establish a healthy balance between the needs of the community and the individual, between equity and rights. We may even start to see how to deal better with some of the other trade-offs that are made daily in public planning processes.
I am an engineer, trained to think that I can make objective decisions based on numerical analysis. I can model future traffic volumes and recommend road improvements and ask a transport economist to tell me where the investment priority should be, so that my public service client can sleep at night knowing that he is allocating public funds where they will provide the most benefit. But I am wrong. There is a value system and assumptions that underpin the government's policies and the processes, institutional structures and analytical methods; and if we don't see that, our recommendations can have repercussions that we don't even consider, no matter how much public consultation goes into the process.
Some African countries are on the front lines of environmental management, dependent as so many people are on marginal land. Climate change has the potential to hit hard in the near future, and adaptation is vital. But even where climate change is not yet being felt, programmes have been developed that provide models for addressing environmental and socio-economic issues at the same time.
South Africa's Working for Water programme gives jobs and training to some of the country's most marginal communities. Professor Kader Asmal, South Africa's minister of Water Affairs and Forestry after the country's first democratic elections in 1994, helped develop the programme to clear alien vegetation that displaced indigenous plants and sucked up as much as seven percent of annual rainwater runoff. Five billion rand has been spent on the exercise, and the annual budget is now nearly R1 billion.
The payoff has been immense. Not only has the programme provided jobs, restored biodiversity, and recovered valuable runoff over 1.6 million hectares of land, its pioneering social development focus has become mainstreamed in government programmes. Spinoff programmes are Working for Wetlands, Working on Fire and Working for Woodlands; and next is Working for Energy, which will generate electricity from invasive alien biomass that has been cleared from the land.
Another innovative product is a partnership between Working for Water and the World Wide Fund for Nature, aiming to involve private business. A "water neutral" scheme will allow the private sector to offset its water use by paying to have the equivalent amount of water released back into the river system by clearing alien invasive plants, and maintaining the area alien-free for 20 years.
[With information from a speech by Kader Asmal, published in the Cape Times, 26 June 2009 (subscription required)]