For Fresh Thinking, Look South

Event: BETTER CITY/BETTER Life: South-North Initiative
Location: United Nations Headquarters, 05.18.11
Speakers: Plenary Session: Cecilia Martinez (Welcome & Opening Statement) — Director, UN Habitat New York Office; Margaret O’Donoghue Castillo, AIA, LEED AP (Welcome) — President, AIA New York Chapter; Aliye Celik, Ph.D. (Welcome) — Co-Chair, Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization; Ambassador Francis Lorenzo — President, South-South News; H.E. Ron Sims (Keynote) — Deputy Secretary, United States Department of Housing & Urban Development; Dialogue Session 1: The South-North Initiative: H.E. Sirodjidin Aslov (Chair) — Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Tajikistan to the United Nations; Prof. Urs P. Gauchat, AIA (Moderator) — Dean, School of Architecture, New Jersey Institute of Technology; Robert Buckley — Managing Director, Rockefeller Foundation; Marc A. Weiss, Ph.D. — Chairman and CEO, Global Urban Development; Jonathan Clyne — Associate Director, The Halcrow Group; Alven Lam — Director, International Research, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Dialogue Session 2: The Role of Information Communication Technology as Agents for Change: H.E. Dr. A.K. Abdul Momen (Chair) — Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh to the U.S.; James McCullar, FAIA (Moderator) — Co-Chair, Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization & Past President, AIA New York Chapter; Matthew Chandy — Senior Urban Advisor, CHF Intern; Theresa Williamson — Executive Director, Catalytic Communities; John A. Kent — Philos Health; Dialogue Session 3: Leapfrog Innovations as Agents for Change: H.E. Josephine Ojiambo (Chair) — Deputy Permanent Representative of Kenya to the United Nations; Professor Lance Jay Brown, FAIA (Moderator) — Chancellor, ACSA College of Distinguished Professors; Kanu Agrawal — Architect, New Delhi, India & Curator, “Jugaad Urbanism: Resourceful Strategies for Indian Cities” exhibition, Center for Architecture; Susan Zielinski — Managing Director, SMART (Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transformation), University of Michigan; Teddy Cruz — Architect, Professor of Public Culture, Visual Arts Department, University of California, San Diego; Conclusions: Applicability of Best Practices to the Developed World: Yamina Djacta (Introduction) — Deputy Director UN-Habitat New York Office; H.E. Vince Henderson (Chair) — Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of Dominica to the United Nations; Cecilia Martinez (Moderator) — Director, UN Habitat New York Office
Organizers: Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization; UN-Habitat; AIANY; South-South News
Partners: City College of New York — CUNY Spitzer School of Architecture; NJIT New Jersey’s Science & Technology University College of Architecture & Design

Until recently, relations between developed and developing nations have assumed a top-down model where both aid and ideas flowed from the industrialized North to the impoverished South. Among the many things wrong with this neocolonial assumption is that it overlooks the useful ideas percolating up from South to North, from the “green capitalism” hailed by Global Urban Development chairman Marc A. Weiss, Ph.D., to the concept of jugaad, or design improvisation deriving useful results from inexpensive materials, embodied in the Center’s recent “Jugaad Urbanism” exhibition. UN-Habitat and partners assembled leaders from both hemispheres to share ideas in the critical space between two senses of sustainable urbanism: as a futurist ideal and as actually existing practices. HUD’s Ron Sims offered inspiring linkages between today’s global changes and the forms of progress his own family has witnessed in the U.S.

Some of the South’s achievements are well known, such as Jamie Lerner, Hon. FAIA’s transportation reforms in Curitiba and similar systems in Bogotá (not just bus rapid transit, SMART’s Susan Zielinski pointed out, but BRT introduced in the wider context creating socially equitable multi-modal systems). Some are on the brink of gaining global recognition as game-changers, such as rail lines in China, Brazil, and elsewhere: the first true high-speed system in the Americas, said Halcrow Group rail consultant Jonathan Clyne, will be the Trem de Alta Velocidade (TAV) connecting Rio de Janeiro and Campinas via Sao Paulo (construction is expected to begin next year), and China’s system has expanded from 649 km in 2008 to 8,400 km now, expected to reach 19,000 km by 2014. Speeding inter-urban travel, particularly between intermediately spaced cities, has historically led to sustained prosperity. Rail, BRT, mobile phones, and reuse of waste materials are the kinds of “leapfrogging” technologies that help developing countries overcome infrastructure deficiencies relatively quickly — faster, sometimes, than wealthier countries whose older, slower, more wasteful systems (e.g., highways, hardwired phone networks, landfills) are locked in by past investment.

For rapidly expanding cities, speakers noted, economic and demographic acceleration exacerbate questions of equity. Teddy Cruz’s work on both sides of the San Diego-Tijuana border illuminates sharp contrasts between the “urbanism of fear” seen in gated communities and the “creative acts of citizenship” of ad-hoc infill projects and flexible communal construction. Brazilian nonprofit group Catalytic Communities, said Executive Director Theresa Williamson, is promulgating accessible information technology to help organize favela residents, threatened with forcible eviction as Rio’s pre-Olympic real estate boom gains momentum.

Both North and South can look to these kinds of force-multiplying efforts for potential answers to the critical question raised by Urs Gauchat: “How do you get the taxpayer enthused about paying for somebody else’s benefits?” No one pretends there are easy answers for today’s “curious inversion” whereby the developed world is convinced it lacks the resources to pay for progress while the economies of China, India, Brazil, and other nations are roaring full blast, but Cecilia Martinez recommended attention to cultural variables, particularly assumptions about privacy and density. As Weiss suggested, “There’s no ‘Us vs. Them,’ because there’s no Them. It’s all us.”