Deciding to go abroad was a bit like deciding to go to Rice: someone told me to, the price was right, and I was not equipped with any skills to enter the real world. There was no romantic urgency or profound revelation to my leaving—which made for a very surprising sixteen weeks. Step by discombobulating step came the realization that everything you and I have learned over the years about society, politics, religion or whatever metric we use to organize people is thoroughly imperfect. So when we talk about what’s good for the world (the whole world?), what do we really know?
To my comrades considering studying or living abroad, I suggest you hold onto your Goods and Bads, examine them in your hand, and then feed them all the new definitions encountered on your travels until they burst from over-saturation. I gorged myself on sustainable development because that was my notion of Good—green and efficient and welcoming. Climate change, extinction rates, corporate pollution, environmental injustices: these are humanity’s greatest challenges! And while I still believe these things to be Bad, today’s notion of sustainable development is not the great equalizer of these Bads. I’ve found that tossing the term into every policy, plan, and design often exacerbates the more subtle nuances of social justice. Let me explain.
This past semester, I spent a month each in the cities of Ahmedabad, India; São Paulo, Brazil; and Cape Town, South Africa. These three cities are astoundingly similar, as they are all cities of the “Global South”—meaning they all are permanently and inextricably bound by a history of colonialism and a perpetual future of catching up with the “Western World.” I constantly wondered how a city can be sustainable if its very founding was by some distant kingdom, come to exploit its resources and people. This internal dialogue was complicated further by the fundamental question I often skimmed over: What is sustainability? With every use of the term, its meaning was stretched thinner and thinner across every industry, political party, and lifestyle. I hope you, my curious reader, will join me on this international adventure and in a discussion on sustainable development in 21st century cities.
Our travels actually begin in New York City where I spent two weeks getting oriented to my study abroad program and its lexicon of colonialism, capitalism...communism... Anyways, my most memorable site visit was Hudson Yards, described on its website as the “largest private real estate development in the history of the United States” where 17 million square feet of residential and commercial space in Manhattan will cost $20 billion.
With an impressive series of conservation plans, Related Companies’ Vice President and developer of Hudson Yards, Michael Samuelian, candidly admits that sustainability is one of Hudson Yards’ strongest selling points to its target audience: millennials. We (my generation and I) light up at the sound of 100%: organic, vegan, electric, renewable, post-consumer, etc. products and are the most willing generation to spend extra on these goods1. The project developers conducted a psychographic study on millennials to quantify complex wants and needs into a bundle package of buildings (and a park!) easy for the thirty-something-year-old’s eye and conscience to consume.
What really bugs me about Hudson Yards is that conservation becomes a privilege for affluent renters who can mindlessly pay a developer to divert their water and compost their waste for them. So rather than forego the unnecessary purchase, you can trash your $25 kale salad, guilt- and gluten-free!
Even more insidious than this obvious wealth barrier is the larger effect Hudson Yards has on New York City. While the project attracts jobs, residents, and luxury brand stores, it expels long-time residents (i.e. the working class, elderly, and people of color) from the already unaffordable area. The development will inevitably increase the property value of the neighborhood—home to hundreds of affordable housing units—to be flipped for shiny new apartments and boutique museums. Experts already know “gentrified ecological neighborhoods” force “socially vulnerable people out”2 so I won’t cry about it in too much detail. We haven’t even left the country!
There is a plan even bigger and far more expensive than Hudson Yards trending in India: the idea of “smart” cities. As one of the fastest developing countries in the world, India partners with international corporations in the planning and financing of 100 smart cities built from the ground up (but planned from the top-down). Visit a smart city website like that of Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT City) and you see renderings of “futuristic buildings… immaculate greenspaces… a well-connected transportation network… and a fine balance between recreational and residential spaces,”3 not to mention an entirely white citizenry (Figure 1). GIFT City, like most smart cities, is also a self-proclaimed “eco-city,” with “maintenance of ecological integrity” as one of its top priorities. Imagine, a city of 10-11 million productive citizens whom collectively and unconsciously live green. Sounds like a dream!
And it is. I visited the real GIFT City—about 30 km north of Ahmedabad—but all I saw was two uninhabited high-rises jutting out of unmanicured dirt. This is the reality of India’s smart cities (Figure 2): a mirage of social and infrastructural order in the desert of Gujarat.
Figure 1: A screenshot of recreational time in GIFT City
Figure 2: The reality of GIFT City in 2015, five years after its alleged completion date. Photo: Reuters
But let’s just pretend GIFT City does happen, that it sprouts some more buildings with actual roads. Let’s pretend millions of families flock to this urban oasis to do business. Let’s pretend that the public and private sector somehow meet the other’s demands. The problem is not in the reality of GIFT City but is implicit in its creation.
When conceiving of a smart city, we are intoxicated with words like “recreation” and “sustainable” and forget that the creation of a smart city is the abandonment of an existing one. Public resources for Ahmedabad, sparse as they are, would be wasted on delusional urbanism. Funds that could provide Ahmedabad with reliable electricity and water will be diverted to superfluities like universal Wi-Fi and a man-made river in GIFT City. Instead of reducing, reusing and recycling existing infrastructure, India wants to toss Ahmedabad in the garbage.
Beyond manufactured capital, Ahmedabad’s human capital will retreat to this middle class utopia, leaving marginalized communities in the rubble of a 600 year old heritage site. Smart cities might prove to be unsustainable in every sense of the term—environmentally, socially, financially—but still, the fantasy is propagated by India’s business elite in search of a middle class oasis. Rather than auto-constructing a contextless city in rural areas, India needs to accommodate urbanization by improving existing infrastructure that will benefit current urban dwellers of all socioeconomic status.
I love São Paulo. I love the ancient trees, the public parks, the walls thick with graffiti. I love its hideous discotheques, its rampant PDA, its wildly diverse peoples. I know my feelings are entirely biased and a little irrational—São Paulo was in a singularly volatile mood when we met in March: zika, impeachment, Olympics. But my God what a classroom it made!
That being said, I needed a break. I particularly needed to escape The City. Every block I walked in São Paulo seemed to produce another internal debate about the human condition—an argument I was tired of losing. So for spring break, four friends and I were dropped at the state line of São Paulo and Paraná, a border drawn by a river whose curvature creates one of the many valleys in Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest.
This is where I met Pedro, an ageless philosopher, husband, farmer, scientist, and over all Renaissance man. He welcomed us to his farm, Centro de Envolvimento Agroflorestal Felipe Moreira (Figure 3), where he and his wife teach travelers and friends agroforestry: an organic farming method that maintains indigenous foliage for a more sustainable crop and ecosystem.
Figure 3: A few snaps from my stay at the Centro
Pedro taught me many things: I gutted my first fish, named many new fruits (goiaba=guava), and mastered maneuvering wheelbarrows. His most impactful lessons, though, were not taught in the field but usually over a good (really good) meal. He would describe what it takes—gentleness, patience, and indefinite hours doing unexpected chores—to raise ethical, healthy, successful little plants. This is what he calls “food made from love.”
Notice that Pedro calls his revegetation efforts, avoidance of chemicals, and conservation of resources an act of love, not an act of sustainability. This love comes from a commitment to understanding and participating in Earth’s cycles—an understanding my-city-slicker-self lacks. Instead of exploring the artistry of nature, I had simplified it to a science. Sustainability became an equation I used to optimize my purchases and minimize my conscience. And as I think back on the infrastructure of these cities, their concern for the environment was one of practicality rather than affection. My stay at the Centro gave me a more complete understanding of cities—made their perimeters porous to wild ideas.
If you visit Cape Town, whether it be in person or in picture, you are bound to see the 2010 FIFA World Cup’s Green Point Stadium (Figure 4). While the stadium is impressive, what grabbed my attention was the park surrounding the development. Open greenspaces are an invitation to lounge and play; trails organically navigate its gardens; built structures seamlessly reference the natural environment. In other words, it’s a pretty place. It’s especially pretty on a Sunday afternoon when you can barely tell what all that flowery design stuff is; all you can see are families doing their thing. All sorts of families—Malays, Xhosa people, Afrikaaners and a slew of miscellaneous Capetownians and tourists—enjoying the same space, even talking to each other! This, I am sad to say, is a rare sight in Cape Town.
Figure 4: A generic Google image of Cape Town with Green Point Stadium in the foreground. What you can’t see behind those mountains are hundreds of townships home to millions of colored and black people for the past several generations. https://capetown-airport.co.za/
The reality is, South Africa is an incredibly young nation in a lot of ways. Its modern constitution was enacted only two decades ago to signify a change in the country’s race relations and formally bury apartheid policy4. But, to quote one of my professors, “policy is only paper.” The real reality in post-apartheid Cape Town is an increase in violence in townships, sustained social immobility, and not-so-micro-aggressions towards coloured5 and black Capetownians. To this day, residential and class divisions are just as stark as when they were curated by the government.
But behind these phenomena are mind-boggling complications we call humanity—the Reality is a collection of strong personal narratives about upbringing and family history. These stories were intimated to me by my coloured family in Bo-Kap6 and my black family in Langa,7 both of whom I lived with for two weeks each (living with local families in each city was the greatest privilege during my study abroad—and as a privileged U.S. citizen, that’s saying a lot). I also became intimate with the white existence in Cape Town and have to say it was remarkably similar to my life in Houston where I can go unnoticed in a cutesy coffee shop or in an office environment. Because I straddled all three worlds in Cape Town, I was struck by how separate their hemispheres are: each group respects each other’s space but is cognizant of their otherness.
So when I step into Green Point Park, I am conflicted. I admire it for successfully engaging all citizens and empowering them to interact with their social, built, and natural environment. But what disturbs me about the park and, ultimately, Cape Town as a whole, is how dishonest it was to me about how messed up the city really is. The entire premise behind the World Cup development is to sell tourists a very specific image of “authentic South Africa.” The park appeals to this ethos with initiatives to holistically preserve and teach South African heritage and nature: plaques that display indigenous herbs used as medicine by indigenous people; goofy play structures meant to mimic trees from a safari; a program for township youths to eradicate an invasive weed. The park simultaneously exoticizes South African history in its design and normalizes racial integration in its users, making for an easy-to-swallow, truly “African” experience.
My month in Cape Town was my most bizarre as a traveler. I had this persistent, unnamable feeling that I was looking at a painting that I was not a part of; rather I was some passive interpreter of all these distinct colors smeared across its tableau. I was reminded of Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images (figure 5), warning me that “this is not a pipe” but a representation of a pipe. Green Point Park is not Cape Town but a representation of Cape Town. In Reality (rather than sur-reality), Cape Town looks something like a twisted Rothko, with Green Point Park as one little patch of pointillism.
Figure 5: Magritte’s iconic painting The Treachery of Images
My mind is back in India in the most breath-taking mosque I have ever seen. Dubbed “the Acropolis of Ahmedabad” by Le Corbusier, Sarkhej Roza was built in the mid-15th century as a worship site/tomb/summer palace for the sultan. Today, the mosque no longer receives funding from Ahmedabad’s Hindu government and is maintained (barely) by the surrounding Muslim neighborhood of Juhapura. Nevertheless, Sarkhej Roza is a recreational and spiritual destination for its community. Attached to the mosque is a massive swimming hole with fantastic steps and ruins as its four walls. During the dry season the cavity is filled not with water but with couples luxuriating in the grass and young men playing cricket.
Less noticeable is a woman washing herself in the remains of the pool. The water is covered in algae and sprinkled with litter and you wonder if she could possibly be cleaner after her bath. I watch her ascend the steps, shoeless.
I kept seeing this woman during my travels, especially when considering sustainable development. She doesn’t waste any water bathing in the lake; she presumably doesn’t have a car spewing carbon into the atmosphere; she wouldn’t dare waste the food I throw away; she probably lives in a shack of reclaimed materials. All in all, her environmental impact is nothing in comparison to my emissions. Even if I live in Hudson Yards, eat only organic goiaba, and design smart cities as a living, I will never be as good to the Earth as the woman bathing in the waters of Sarkhej Roza.
This, my generous and patient reader, is what I find so crazy about sustainable development. Despite considering myself environmentally-conscious, so much of the developing world does not have to be conscious of their environment because they straight-up can’t afford to be. Instead they are subservient to survival. It feels silly to call something sustainable at all if it’s just the way things used to be. That is the challenge with sustainability: a desire for the environment we had with the lifestyle we want.
More and more people move to the city for this lifestyle: cars, air-conditioning, an absurdly huge front yard. And justifiably so! This is why I persist in my pursuit for a sustainable city. Urbanization accelerates every day and instead of denying the developing world our guilty pleasures, I find it critical—the most critical—to create physical spaces that minimize harm to our planet but also provide the mental space for everyone to build a home.
Yes, it is enormously important to be a steward to the environment because yes, it is in a terrifying and devastating condition, and yes it will take a lot of universal willpower to cure. But our impact on the environment is far more quantifiable than the impact we have on one another, and I just hope we can appreciate the delicacy of humanity within this rational pursuit of sustainable development.
2 Mancebo, Francoise. 2016. “C’est ci n’est pas une pipe: Unpacking Injustice in Paris.” The Just City Essays. 1: 21-24
4 Apartheid, literally meaning “separate-hood” in Afrikaans, was a period in South African history from 1948-1994 characterized by policies that used race to organize its electorate, neighborhoods, infrastructure, job availability, and education system to protect the white minority. Apartheid’s most infamous creation was thousands of townships—residential zones where the government forcibly relocated families and individuals into colored and black groupings.
5 Coloured is a neutral term used in South Africa to describe individuals that are not of entirely Black African origin or European origin (white) but are some mix of both or are another race such as Malay, Chinese, and Japanese, all whom compose a significant fraction of Cape Town’s population.
6 Bo-Kap is a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in the outskirts of the City Bowl. Cape Malays were first brought to South Africa from Southeast Asia as slaves for the Dutch East India Company.
7 Langa is Cape Town’s first black township and is about 30 minutes from downtown Cape Town.