City Harvest, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Mar

Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends.  Lewis Mumford

A city isn’t so unlike a person. They both have the marks to show they have many stories to tell. They see many faces. They tear things down and make new again.  Rasmenia Massoud

I was in Atlanta, Georgia part of this week speaking with student groups at Georgia Tech University, mostly about their uncertain futures and the promises represented by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development made to their largest-in-history generation.

The students were mostly attentive, if at times a bit underwhelmed.  They’ve heard promises from older folks before of course, including the promise that if they do what they’re told, get good grades, stifle their passions, and defer their dreams — perhaps forever but certainly until their mountains of educational debt can be fully serviced — things will ultimately be well for them.

This generation of students can be a skeptical lot and not without reason.   Despite our insistences even those with “elite” educational backgrounds have already experienced a dearth of employment options, working long hours, doubling up on housing, sacrificing any semblance of a social life for the sake of success that is anything but guaranteed.   Many of these young people avoid the mainstream news; but the issues that underscore the need for the 2030 Agenda in the first place – the security and ecological threats we have introduced into our world, the genies we have released to wreck their signature havoc – remain very much on their minds.

Theirs are largely “first world problems,” many would admit.   Fulfilling professional goals and personal expectations might prove elusive, but these young people aren’t going to starve or die from the failure. And at some level, they seem to understand that in a world of growing inequalities, their needs will likely be addressed well beyond minimum levels.  They might not hit the jackpot, but they have skills and flexibility; they can choose to revise their trajectories with a reasonable chance of finding meaning and perhaps even a measure of abundance.

But they also know that things can and must get better. While most were no doubt skeptical about some of the promises embedded in the 2030 Agenda, some expressed interest in its ambitions and in the capacities needed to turn this promise – this one above all of the others – into a predictable blueprint for their common future.

This won’t be an easy chore. We made brief mention of the precarious health of our oceans; the accelerating extinction of global species; the stubborn pervasiveness of discrimination against women and girls; the crippling poverty we have every means and still-too- little intention to eliminate; the corruption that bleeds societies of domestic resources and stifles public trust: the staggering employment deficits that we must overcome commensurate with this generation’s size and the impacts of human migration and ever-more-sophisticated robotics; the urban settings set to house the dreams and aspirations of so many millions more young people while housing and employment remain in crisis, and while current residents struggle with pollution, substandard transportation and green space as rare as a bargain Manhattan apartment.

It’s a large and formidable list, a testament both to the depth of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves and the genuine willingness of the international community to face – without sugarcoating — the challenges of the next 15 years.  What the students wanted to know more about is how to move goals and targets beyond rhetoric.   What are all of us prepared to do – and change – with our institutional structures and personal commitments in order to make this happen?

In that vein, mention was made of efforts underway to reform taxation and end corruption; to eliminate trafficking in weapons, narcotics and persons that inflame risks to violence; to create viable indicators of the full 2030 performance based on data that is robust, flexible, context-specific, and able to help us track risks and trends beyond “snapshots” of the present.

And we must do this and more while taking the shifting needs of cities – the settings where so many of this current generation of young people will choose to find their way — fully into account. Among the many helpful resources available to participants in this week’s interesting UN Statistical Commission was a UN publication entitled “The World’s Cities,” This summary report provides a brief look at urban growth during the period defined by the 2030 Agenda; the “megacities” continuing their expansion and the many other cities on the cusp of joining their ranks, especially in what some still refer to as the “global south.”  The report makes plain that people will continue to pour into urban areas such as Bogota and Bangkok, Mumbai and Lagos; and when they arrive they will need housing for their families, reliable transportation to seek and sustain livelihoods, places to educate themselves and their children, even guidance on managing the complexities of a new urban home.

These ”mega” cities and many others are places of growing diversity that almost defy existing data;  places of ever-growing complexity of social groupings, expectations, aspirations;  most often including growing social and economic inequalities as well.  Cities worldwide are demonstrating their capacity to become breeding grounds for violence or hubs of cooperative innovation.  They can help us manage our ecological footprint or push us over the climate threshold. They can exacerbate existing social divisions or help to forge a more hopeful, sustainable consensus for “lovers and friends” in keeping with the 2030 Agenda goal of “peaceful and inclusive societies.”

At one point towards the end of one of the presentations, the professor in charge (a good friend) asked me what I was currently most concerned about in this world?  I answered then as I usually do, speaking not so much about threats to the planet as the status of capacities within ourselves.  Do we have what it takes to get through this rough patch?  Are our pathways to social and political participation sufficiently fair and inviting?  Do our often violent and consumption-laden lifestyles posses the wiggle room to change the ways we invest our energies and resources?   Are we ready to join this harvest of potential of which we must take advantage, despite the metaphorical thin soils and unpredictable rains that gave rise to it?

Whether we acknowledge it or not, there is so much potential still to be realized in even our often-chaotic and overly impersonal urbanized settings.   If we have the most comprehensive and widely disaggregated data; if we have the necessary buy-in from local and national stakeholders, if we have governments and international institutions willing to do what is needed to restore public trust; if we have more dependable and transparent sources of domestic and other funding; then this next period in our collective history will surely yield a more abundant harvest.

But will the harvesters be many or few?  Will we have the hands (and brains) we need to gather and organize the best of what is now available to us for future use?  Will our talented young people sit passively on the sidelines and hope the raging storm won’t ruin too many crops, or will they help us harvest the best of what is now in the field and then plant some new and even better seeds?

We have a case for involvement to make to these people, but we must seize more of those precious and previously squandered opportunities to inspire them to life projects that are larger than their careers and social media feeds.   Our urban areas – many bursting at the seams – are the places most of this generation will choose to call home.  If we can make that more convincing case, then an efficient, equitable and passionate care of urban spaces, a core objective of the 2030 Agenda, might well become among this generation’s most notable contributions.

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