Sustainable Cities: Who’s side are you on?

Written by Jessica Cook –

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I have been studying urban farming in Delhi, India for almost 3 years and I have always tried to approach it without judgment.  It is easy to advocate for the “little guy”—it is the American-way to root for the underdog.  But climate change mitigation practically necessitates grand gestures that impact at the city-level.  I am witness first-hand to the interface between small-scale family farms producing fresh vegetables and fruits for local neighborhood markets and metro expansion to reduce automobile trips and thereby lessen the overwhelming air, soil and water pollution due to burning fossil fuels across a city of more than 23 million people.  On the one hand, urban agriculture contributes to food security, provides access to healthy foods, creates livelihood opportunities, maintains floodplain function and other ecologic systems, and on the other hand the metro mitigates greenhouse gas emissions, provides safe and reliable transportation for young, old and disabled, and creates livelihood opportunities (for those involved with construction, by those required to run and maintain the new metro line, and for those who cannot afford a car but want to work beyond walking distance from their home).

Now for the other side: urban agriculture in Delhi overuses chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and promotes a feudal-type land system where laborers are indebted to landlords.  And the other other side: metro construction is literally through small family farm plots and consequently breaks up both livelihoods and the social fabric of the farm community, and creates a climate of distrust between a vulnerable community and the city government.  We talk about sustainable planning and development with little acknowledgement of the very real and conflicting experiences that individuals and communities live through while it plays out.

I find it hard to believe that it is an all-or-nothing scenario where either metro comes and farmers go or farmers are protected and the metro network leaves adjacent neighborhoods without connectivity.  I am trained as a landscape architect, which means that it is ingrained in me to get everyone at the table and find common ground.  There are always issues invisible to the other party brought to light by discussion.  And often, the issues require minor modifications.  Perhaps it is as simple as open communication.  The farmers I talk to don’t have any idea of the timeframe for the metro project and therefore cannot plan their next cropping season.  Similarly, the metro developers don’t know the growing cycles so they may inadvertently break ground on a crop that is just a few days from harvest.

The tension between large-scale city planning and local communities is not new (see an excerpt from the PBS series: Jane Jacobs vs Robert Moses: Urban Fight of the Century, but it is disheartening to see it continue to play out.  I guess this is where my blog turns thin because my intension is not to propose a solution—I’m not sure there is one.  What I do propose is to stop believing there are “sides” to take and focus instead on where the (literal and figurative) common ground lies.

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