Author: Petra Hurtado
Cities around the globe are trying to fight climate change by replacing unsustainable infrastructure systems with sustainable alternatives. Hundreds of miles of newly constructed bike lanes, solar panels on rooftops, the replacement of conventional light bulbs with LED lighting, and self-driving cars are just a few examples of urban technologies that shall help make cities more sustainable. The technical solution is to replace the unsustainable system with the sustainable one. Technological innovation shall make cities more sustainable. But, how do we know that these technical innovations won’t result in new problems?
In the early 1900s, when horse carriages were the main means of transportation, the “environmental” problem cities such as London or New York had to deal with was the horse manure on their streets. The newspapers in London predicted that if the increase in traffic continued, London would be buried underneath one meter of horse manure by 1930. Replacing horse carriages with cars and building hundreds of miles of roads and highways solved the problems of the early 1900s, but resulted in new problems we are dealing with today. No one asked why traffic was actually increasing. The simple replacement of one technology by another was the solution.
Nowadays, we try to solve new problems, following the same approach. Instead of questioning why an increasing number of people needs to drive from town A to town B, we build a subway line to combat traffic congestion and call it sustainable transportation. Instead of questioning why people’s energy consumption has been increasing, we put solar panels on their rooftops and call it sustainable energy. I am exaggerating, of course; however, simply replacing one technology with another, without questioning the root causes of unsustainable behavior is only a short-term solution and may result in new problems in the future. “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” (Albert Einstein). For the creation of truly sustainable cities, we need to adapt a new kind of thinking.
We focus too much on technical causes and technical solutions when planning for urban sustainability, ignoring the reasons for unsustainable behavior. In the end, sustainability depends on the user behavior and not only on the technical solution. Planners and city governments have to focus more on the people who live, work, and play in their cities. They are the ones who can make their cities truly sustainable by communicating the root causes of their behavior; e.g., the reasons why they need to go from town A to town B; what is missing in town A; etc. Understanding the root causes of people’s behavior may result in a completely different solution for a problem no one was actually aware of.
Urban planning is about creating an environment for people who live their ordinary lives. People don’t behave unsustainably just to behave unsustainably, it’s “ordinary people doing ordinary things, rather than villainous or greedy people doing especially nasty things.” At the same time, they don’t behave sustainably just to behave sustainably either. Everyone just wants to satisfy their needs. Even though, we know that certain activities harm the environment and may cause pollution, if they are necessary to satisfy personal needs, the environmental knowledge won’t necessarily influence the behavior. However, the “city shapes our decisions” in our everyday lives, and it is the urban planner’s task to create a city that allows people to make sustainable decisions. Urban planning must not focus on the technical problem, but on the root causes of unsustainable behavior that created it. What we need is a people-based approach instead of a technology-based approach.
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The Colombian cities Bogotá and Medellín applied people-based approaches, focusing on the root causes of unlawful behavior, in order to fight crime and violence in the 1990s and 2000s. Their approaches achieved tremendous success with homicide rates dropping by over 50% and an urban transformation from two of the most violent cities in the world to two showcases for sustainable urban development. The three mayors Antanas Mockus, Enrique Peñalosa, and Sergio Fajardo didn’t focus on crime and violence as the “technical” problem, but on the root causes of crime and violence. They recognized that people had lost respect for other people’s lives because of social inequality and “a lack of shared values”, root causes of a problem that could not be solved by simply sending more police force out on the streets or by implementing stricter laws. Instead, these three mayors created conditions that motivated and invited people to change their behavior towards legal and peaceful actions by rebuilding civic pride as a weapon against crime and combating inequality as one of the main root causes of violence.
Mockus understood that people needed to be able to identify themselves with where they lived and that they wanted to feel they belonged if they should change their values and respect towards their neighbors and the rest of the city. With his Cultura Ciudadana program, he created this sense of belonging and rebuilt civic responsibility. This program aimed at “self-regulation by citizens” motivating people to learn from each other and influence each other’s behavior towards peaceful actions. He replaced traffic police with mime artists performing at traffic lights and hindering people to cross red lights; and he handed out red cards that people would point at those who broke the law in public. Obviously, “being shamed by a fellow citizen was a greater disincentive than being punished by a corrupt traffic cop.” Mockus made people feel they owned their city. This feeling of ownership made them appreciate it more and change their behavior.
His successor, Peñalosa, continued this approach, focusing on the accessibility of the city. He wanted to create a happy city, and people could only be happy if they could equally access and use their city. Therefore, he emphasized on the construction and improvement of public transportation, pedestrian and bike infrastructure, and public spaces as assets for a community to create friendships and social interactions, urban beauty, and loyalty.
Similarly, in Medellín, Fajardo focused on inequality by creating civic pride through urban design and transformation, using “public spaces and infrastructure as means of socio-economic inclusion.” In addition, he understood that education was an essential part in the process of changing values and the perception of the city. He built numerous library parks as places for education and social interaction. The largest and most iconic one is the Biblioteca España located in one of the poorest comunas of the city.
Mockus, Peñalosa, and Fajardo changed people’s behavior towards peaceful and legal actions by focusing on the root causes of unlawful behavior. They understood that the “technical” solution of increasing the police force in the streets would only help for the symptoms, but would not solve the problem at its roots. They understood that they had to solve the root causes of the problem for a sustainable solution.
If these approaches can be successful in the fight against crime and violence, they may also be successful in the fight against environmental pollution and climate change. The technical solution of installing solar panels helps alleviate the symptoms, but it doesn’t make us live more sustainably. People in Bogotá and Medellín knew that killing each other was unlawful, and they didn’t kill each other just to kill each other, but they did it because of a certain reason, a root cause. When we drive or use ridiculous amounts of energy in our homes, we know that it is harmful to the environment, and we don’t use energy just to use energy, but we do it because of a certain root cause. By focusing on the root causes of unsustainable behavior, truly sustainable solutions may be found.
I am not saying we shouldn’t build public transportation infrastructure, bike lanes, or renewable energy systems. Quite the opposite, I am glad that urban innovation has come this far. However, I am of the opinion that if we want to avoid new problems in the future, we need to apply these technologies in a smarter way, taking into account what people really need and how those needs can be satisfied in sustainable ways. The shift from a technology-based approach to a people-based approach can make urban planning processes much more inclusive and would take public participation to a completely new level. Solutions would not just look good on paper, but they would be accepted by the people and would therefore be more effective. Furthermore, the Mockus example shows that a people-based approach would not just be a means to create truly sustainable solutions, but it would also result in more economic alternatives instead of expensive infrastructure investments. Sometimes a simple, inexpensive solution can be much more effective and sustainable than an expensive technical solution.
 Gardener, G.T./Stern, P.C. (2002): Environmental Problems and Human Behavior2, Pearson Custom Publishing, Boston.
 Montgomery, C. (2013): Happy City. Transforming our lives through urban design, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.
 Riaño, Y.: Addressing Urban Fear and Violence in Bogotá through the ‘Culture of Citizenship’. Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier (WVT)
 McGuirk (2014): Radical Cities, Verso, Brooklyn, NY.
 McGuirk (2014): Radical Cities, Verso, Brooklyn, NY.
 Sanin, F./Cruz, T./Forman, F. (2014): Medellin: Vida y Ciudad. 10 Recorridos, RM Verlag (original in Spanish)