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Harvey Jacobs: A global view of urban growth

Spring/Summer 2014 | By Meghan Lepisto

Urbanization is one of the most profound trends reshaping the human presence on the planet. More than half of the global population now lives in cities, a figure expected to grow to at least 75 percent by the end of this century.

livable cities sustainabilityIn the developing world – and especially its megacities – this migration and growth poses enormous and interconnected social and environmental challenges, according to Harvey Jacobs, a professor of urban and regional planning and environmental studies.

Jacobs is a widely recognized expert on property rights, land use and social conflict, and he is studying how these issues intersect and escalate. He has worked and lectured on these topics in locations ranging from Albania to Italy to Zimbabwe, and recently shared his thoughts on global urban sustainability.

In Common
: What do you see as keys to a livable city? And how might that change as you go from a city like Madison to a megacity of millions?

Jacobs: We’ve been urban in the developed parts of the world for roughly a century, so we know how to think about what it means to be predominantly urban in the United States and Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan. But we really don’t know what it means when much of that urban population is in global megacities. On top of that, a very significant portion of that population is living in slums or informal settlements.

When I’m teaching, I show my students videos and databases that estimate that more than a million people a week are migrating to cities in the world. That’s four times the size of Madison in a single week; it’s hard for most of us to wrap our heads around that notion.

The challenge to me is not how do you make a city like Madison sustainable, because in many ways it’s easy when you’ve got a city of 250,000 and a very educated and involved citizenry. What’s hard is what you do when the world is dominated by the Mexico Cities, the Johannesburgs, the Nairobis, the Mumbais or the Bejings.

Urban sustainability is really about figuring out how to engage resources, people and infrastructure in these megacities. What do you do when you have high rates of poverty and people struggling day to day to be alive, who therefore have less motivation to think about or care about sustainability in terms of a multigenerational frame?

Are you exploring these challenges?

Professor Harvey Jacobs
Harvey Jacobs

I’m exploring one aspect of it: the security of people in slums and informal settlements.The familiar images are the bulldozers that come in and destroy shacks overnight, leaving tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people homeless.

There’s a very rich global discussion from the United Nations, the World Bank and a global network of scholars asking the question of, what do you do? Do you give these people ownership of land in some fashion? And in giving them ownership of land, will their lives be improved? If their lives are improved, will the sustain-ability of the city be improved? Or, is giving them ownership of land in some way not really an answer?

There are multiple case studies around the world that seem to come out with different answers and there are strong advocates on both sides. My part of it is, what do you do with the millions of people living in places like Nairobi, Johannesburg and Mumbai who have tremendous insecurity in the day to day? People go to work in the morning and don’t know when they come home at night if the place they call home will be there. Even in the poorest of the poorest neighborhoods of a city in the United States, few people have to live in the conditions these people live in.

I show my students a movie about informal settlements in India, which makes the point that in one of these settlements in Mumbai, there’s one working toilet for every 800 people. Afterwards, you see the shock on the students’ faces; they can’t get their minds around this.

In thinking about the many places you’ve traveled, is there one area that sticks out as getting it particularly right with regard to fostering sustainable cities?

People from all over the world go to the Netherlands to look at how the Dutch do what they do. Issues of water, transportation and energy use are three of the elements the Dutch have long paid attention to.

"When I’m teaching,
I show my students
videos and databases
that estimate that more
than a million people a
week are migrating to cities
in the world. That’s four
times the size of Madison
in a single week."

However, is the Dutch model a good one for Mumbai or Nairobi? The Netherlands is a developed country with a multicentury history of social cooperation in the management of land and natural resources; they’re a very small nation, much of which is technically below sea level; and they developed a set of ways of thinking about and acting on what we today would call sustainability.These elements are deeply ingrained in Dutch culture.

One of the themes a lot of us are grappling with globally is this question of how do you create a consciousness, a culture and modes of interaction which will lead people both to be happy with their own lives, but to also gather to create environments which work for everyone, including their children and their grandchildren. For me, the bottom line issue of environmental studies, no matter where you are in the spectrum, is that we all think about several generations into the future. The challenge is how we begin to move people in that direction.

I’ll go back to the poverty issue. It’s very difficult when people are struggling on a day-to-day basis. It’s not impossible; we have wonderful examples that pop up of people living in circumstances of great poverty who yet somehow begin to act and motivate others to understand that sustainability isn’t just about someone else, that it can be about me, and it can help me. But unfortunately, those can be quite the exception.

How does climate change factor into or complicate these issues, for example in a coastal location like Bangladesh where people are having to migrate due to extreme weather and rising waters?

It factors into it very directly and it complicates it tremendously. I regularly interact with ministry officials from a variety of countries, including many of the Pacific Islands, who say that in 20 years their country won’t exist.


There are multiple questions that flow from that. Where do they go? Whose responsibility is it that they have to go, and who bears the burden of the transition? Some of the people in the Bangladesh parts of the world are beginning to say, “This is not our fault this happened; why do we have to bear this burden?”

Right away we bump up against culture and very old social prejudices. This is where we need a global conversation, but we don’t have global institutions that have the authority to make decisions about this. They can air the issues and get us talking with each other, but when you have a nation like the United States who says we won’t sign the Kyoto Protocol, and in fact you have a media conversation in the United States that says climate change isn’t real, it further complicates this.

For me it’s fascinating to be in other parts of the world and have people look at me and say “Are there really people in the U.S. who think climate change isn’t real?” They just can’t believe that the scientific evidence isn’t compelling and that there may be hundreds of thousands of people who from their point of view are like ostriches sticking their heads in the sand. That’s just going to further complicate the problem, because it delays until later and later the ability to act. And at some point it really will be too late.

If you look back in history, these kinds of very significant climate changes have led to major national and international conflict and we see everything moving in that direction, whether it’s about poverty, assigning of blame, or about where refugees will go – there are big issues staring at us. 

As you look to the global urban future, is there one idea or solution that you think could be implemented almost anywhere to help make a modern city more livable or sustainable?

There is actually a lot of global discussion about urban food systems and the fact that, regardless of the size, density or tenure situation of the city, there are often places where food could be grown. And there’s often high motivation for people to want to grow food.

"For me, the bottom line
issue of environmental
studies is that we all think
about several generations
into the future. The
challenge is how we begin
to move people in that

A second important part of it, but a much more difficult one, is transportation. Transportation is a very big contributor to non-sustainability. The issue in China with the growth in the number of cars, smog, and the consumption of oil and gas… there’s an obvious solution and it’s about mass transit. It doesn’t have to be investment in trains, which can be wonderful if done right; it can be investment in bus systems and other forms of public transit.

If you’re going to have cities and they’re going to work, people have to get around them. Nobody likes sitting in a traffic jam. And who suffers the most when transportation doesn’t work? The poorest of the poor. They tend to live the farthest from work and spend the most time in transportation, in uncomfortable and unsafe scenarios.

Then an issue which comes right back to urban planning, which has been a much harder one to implement, is the question of where job opportunities are and where people live, and trying to think about the growth, development and management of the city so those two things – where people live and where they work – are not so separated.

In Madison, what do we like to do? We like to get on our bicycles or the bus and it’s very easy to get around and do what we need to do. People everywhere would like that opportunity.  

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