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Urban Poverty vs. Climate Change?

Tina Ziegler16 January 2012

by Tina Ziegler

↑ Photo by: benguez

Two of the most pressing global issues nowadays are urban poverty and climate change. To overcome urban poverty and therefore the urban divide the needs of the urban poor have to be met by social, economic and political inclusion. To tackle climate change appropriate mitigation strategies in the area of energy, waste, waste water and transport have to be implemented and adaptation strategies to increase resilience are crucial. None of these strategies are terribly new or cutting edge.
However, the biggest challenge seems to be that the two issues are being tackled individually. Although some papers and publications can be found on “bridging” these two agendas – also known as brown and green – the reality barely reflects the approach of scientific integration. Hardly any practical cases can be found on an integrated approach between the green and the brown agenda. It can be speculated that this happens because generally the poor – in an urban and rural context – hardly contribute to climate change. Their carbon footprint is usually very low (see more). However, if these communities are to be integrated in the city their footprint will increase, since thinking of bridging the urban divide and integrating the urban poor in the city means meeting their needs as human beings. What are these needs? A hot shower, a cold beer, comfortable indoor climate during all seasons, the needs to communicate, be entertained, have access to information and be able to run a business etc. And these needs are neither basic nor modern. They are universal and independent of social status or income or where someone lives. Everyone has these needs, only that they are not provided to citizens without formal recognition or a certain salary and integration of the urban poor means satisfying these consumption needs.
Meeting these needs with a focus only on the brown agenda means at the same time increasing the carbon footprint, GHG emissions and therefore climate change. How can this pollution evolution from polluting locally when poor, polluting regionally when in transformation and polluting globally when industrialised and “rich” be overcome? It seems so obvious that the opportunity is integration of the urban poor in the city context by meeting their needs in a sustainable manner and reducing the environmental impact these communities would have in the future. And it is possible to go even further: Lessons learnt from applying climate friendly systems in informal settlements can be applied when pimping the formal parts of the city to reduce their negative climate impacts. This might truly be a chance to integrate former informal settlements by actively generating and contributing know-how and knowledge to urban practice and development.
For example Rio de Janeiro: Since January 2011 the city has an eager climate change framework in place – one of the most holistic ones on municipal level in Brazil – with CO2 reduction targets, GHG inventory, prevention and adaptation measures. Furthermore the municipality is well known for its slum upgrading (Morar Carioca) and urban planning programme (UPP Social) to integrate informal settlements. However only in one (!) informal community exists currently an approach – which has its weaknesses and great potential for improvement – to use ‘green’ strategies such as waste water recycling, solar thermal systems, passive solar design, recycled paving, etc. These strategies not only reduce the carbon footprint, but also have the potential to reduce up to 40% of electricity bills in the case of using solar thermal energy for showers instead of electricity and – since some solar systems can be self built – have a job potential for the low income community.
All this seems so simple and convincing to gain the positive impacts of integrating both challenges, too simple for not being regarded in practice. So, I can only keep on wondering: Why is an integrated approach not a broad reality yet?