By Bill Millard
Urban Thinker Campus: Accelerating the SDGs in Cities
November 13, 2019, Day 1, Columbia University SIPA
If the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were as well-known among the general public as the Ten Commandments, Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, or even the top ten teams in the college football polls, the sense of dread at global environmental conditions might not be so pervasive. The more climate damage accelerates, the more informed parties are recognizing the need to promote and implement the 17 principles (particularly, but by no means exclusively, Goal 11 on sustainable cities and communities).
Universities and cities are the logical sites for efforts to make the SDGs part of everyone’s conversation. As Elliot Sclar, founder of Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development (CSUS) observed, “we won’t solve the sustainability problem without coming to grips with it as an urban problem.” Toward that end, a group of scholars and architects (Anna Rubbo, FAIA, of Columbia’s Earth Institute and CSUD, Geeta Mehta of Asia Initiatives, and the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization’s, CSU’s Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, and Theodore Liebman, FAIA) organized the two-day Urban Thinkers Campus conference at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). The aim was to break through academic silos and strengthen the connections among knowledge, urban policy, climate activism, and the SDGs’ public profile.
The commonalities between scholarly investigations and professional practices, many panelists suggested, outweigh differences between those institutions. In the morning panel on “Urban Professions and Governance,” organized and moderated by CSU’s President Brown, Ennead managing partner Don Weinreich, FAIA, emphasized aspects of practice that have “made the place feel a bit more university-like.” The firm’s Ennead Lab, established in 2010, uses Socratic methods to interrogate the contexts and assumptions connecting projects and challenges, yielding achievements such as the Fostering Resilient Ecological Development program at Far Rockaway after Superstorm Sandy; a 20-acre residential Heroic Food Farm that matches veterans returning from overseas, often in need of new careers and missions, with a rural area near Hudson, N.Y., that faces a shortage of farmers (“turning a double negative into a positive”); and Rethinking Refugee Communities, a collaboration with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Stanford University, recognizing that refugee settlements worldwide are more like cities than “camps” and can be operated in ways that treat their populations as assets to host areas, not burdens.
Brown pointed out later that three potent drivers of efforts to translate the SDGs into concrete achievements are youth, mobilization, and a paradigm shift in communications, with an emphasis on social media. One of the most encouraging features of the event was the prominence of younger participants, with their combination of energy and digital savvy. Activist Greta Thunberg, whose implacable countenance now watches over San Francisco in the form of a 60-foot-tall mural, may be the best-known representative of a generation that holds its elders accountable for climatic remediation; she is far from isolated. Her colleague Alexandria Villaseñor, co-founder of US Youth Climate Strike and founder of Earth Uprising, appeared at the UTC as one of the global green movement’s rising rock stars. As a leader of recurrent student strikes and an exceptional public communicator – she is 14 years old and speaks with the poise of a seasoned graduate student – Ms. Villaseñor described taking intergenerational demands to the next level by filing a legal complaint against the nations of France, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, and Turkey for violating the UN Convention’s Rights of the Child through inaction on Paris Agreement reduction targets. She urged adult colleagues to “be a FAN” (fund, amplify, and narrate) and recommended building personal connections with climate-damage denialists, who need to realize that the crisis cannot be a matter of opinion.
Amanda Abrom, a master’s candidate at SIPA, former Fulbright scholar, and Youth Delegate to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, offered models of effective action in the online realm, introducing materials from localprojectchallenge.org (a gallery of efforts well worth exploring) with a guest video appearance by former Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. This collection of worldwide projects illustrates how communities are incorporating the SDGs into daily life and making progress on education, sanitation, agriculture, public-space improvement, and other areas, without waiting for top-down aid from often-sluggish or even antagonistic national political institutions.
The autonomous progressivism of cities was a recurrent emphasis throughout the day’s discussions, from a discussion of local efforts (including independent SDG progress reporting to the UN by New York and other cities) by Alexandra Hiniker of the New York City Mayor’s Office of International Affairs to a global array of complex projects in resource management, infrastructure innovation, and cyclical economies presented by Arup principal Tom Kennedy. Arthur Lerner-Lam of Columbia’s Earth Institute described disaster-resilience efforts in Caracas and California, coordinating the disciplines of seismology, risk management, architecture, and machine intelligence to advance local adaptations to conditions that have as much to do with unequitable development as with carbon intensity. Mitigation strategies against carbon buildup, he noted, are up against obstacles of global-level compact adoption, but adaptation solutions are local, persistent, and responsive to faster decision-making processes.
Academic practices and histories came in for some rigorous critiques, particularly by Pratt School of Architecture dean Harriet Harriss, who “subverted the brief” with a discussion of strategies for decolonizing the architectural curriculum. Harriss noted that forward-thinking institutions often stand on compromised foundations, including slavery-based fortunes past and present, since some 120 million enslaved people still labor in the construction industry worldwide; even Pratt itself, a model of inclusive education, owes its existence to founder Charles Pratt’s petroleum business polluting Greenpoint, and the social housing that benefited from his philanthropy can be seen as “the rinse cycle on dirty money from oil refineries.” Awareness of how education and architecture have been implicated in exploitative and extractive practices, Harriss argued, can lead not only to redresses of longstanding grievances and long-overdue diversity efforts but to a broadening of architectural knowledge, drawing on its rich interdisciplinary heritage.
New York’s position as a center for environmental action received ample attention. Regional Plan Association president/CEO Tom Wright recounted the RPA’s history of providing public counsel on scales larger than any single city, culminating in its Fourth Regional Plan promoting equity, health, prosperity, and sustainability, with particular emphasis on transportation reforms, at a time when revived prospects for congestion pricing can bring the externalities of motor-vehicle operation into the economic system and create an “opportunity to break the dictatorship of the automobile.” On Governors Island, noted GrowNYC Teaching Garden cofounder Shawn Connell, thousands of public school students and corporate volunteers are learning about aquaponics, solar energy, rainwater harvesting, recycling, and healthy urban agriculture on a one-acre farm where signage connects the various activities to the specific SDGs they address. The city is well ahead of the federal government, noted CSUD co-director Jacqueline Klopp and Public Design Commission Executive Director Justin Garrett Moore, in advancing local thinking that can add up to global effects: a constructive reversal of the old slogan “think globally, act locally.”
The global public realm, speakers acknowledged, continues to present alarming news. Kennedy pointed out that when he began his work at Arup on rebuilding London, humanity was using the Earth’s resources at a rate appropriate to our one planet, but nowadays we require the resource equivalent of 1.7 Earths every year; by 2050 we’re likely to need three. No one is under the illusion that reversing that pattern will happen automatically. Still, the necessary metrics are known and some of the means of reaching them are at hand. In the words of CSUD’s Klopp, “we have no alternative but to be optimistic.”