How Can Local Governments and Civil Society Partner to Produce Sustainable Cities?

By Dr Galina Churkina

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How can local governments and civil society partner to produce sustainable cities? This was one of the central questions cutting across four panels of the conference “Co-producing sustainable cities?”, which was organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in cooperation with the Technical University of Berlin. This conference served as a discussion forum in preparation for the adoption of the “New Urban Agenda”, which will be steering sustainable urban development for the next twenty years. This agenda will be adopted at Habitat III – the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, which will take place in Quito, Ecuador in October, 2016.

The right to affordable housing – a problem in many cities

Seventeen presenters representing nine countries presented examples of cooperation and – more often – the lack of cooperation between citizen’s groups and local governments. Multiple examples from both the global South and North demonstrated that local government decisions on urban development were often steered by the interests of national or multi-national corporations, which are interested in making profits in cities, rather than by the interests of city dwellers. To accommodate the interests of corporations, city governments infringe on the lifestyles of city dwellers and their rights to affordable housing and transportation. One striking example was drawn from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where hundreds of people were evicted from their houses during the construction of the sport and housing facilities for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. Examples from Berlin and Barcelona indicate that the problem of eviction is acute in those cities as well, but at a smaller scale. In Berlin, evictions are often triggered by the modernisation of buildings (frequently justified by improving the energy efficiency of buildings) and the subsequent transformation of existing apartments into investment properties that most renters cannot afford. In Barcelona, people unable to pay steadily rising mortgage payments are evicted. This is a result of a joint campaign by the government and the banks to promote private home ownership, which enabled even people with low incomes to secure loans to buy apartments. A spanish citizen group, the Platform of Mortgage Victims, has been successful in pushing for legislation to protect people threatened with eviction, which was first adopted in the province of Catalonia and subsequently across Spain. The law ensures that victims of eviction are provided with comparable housing and their moving expenses covered.

Coffee capsules from recyclable materials

The management of municipal solid waste seems to be one of those issues where collaboration between local government and citizen’s groups and even between citizen’s groups, local government, and businesses proved to be possible. In the global North, waste management is a traditional field of municipal services. This is not the case in many cities of the global South. In some cases, waste management is run on a cooperative basis. In others, it is an informal employment sector. One example of successful cooperation is that of Italian waste management company Contarina, which has achieved a recycling rate of 85% in the municipalities that it serves. The company operates in the province of Treviso, in the Veneto region, where it serves a population of approximately 554,000 inhabitants across an area of 1,300 km2. Contarina’s integrated waste management system spans waste production, collection, treatment, and recovery, generating a positive impact on the environment as well as on the lives of the citizens. In the past, a large part of this waste was made up of coffee capsules that were difficult to recycle. Contarina approached the companies producing the capsules and was able to convince them to switch to easily recyclable materials or reusable capsules.

Ljubljana (approx. 272,000 inhabitants, 164 km2) is the first European capital within the EU to adopt a Zero Waste Strategy. This strategy commits the city to increasing the share of recycled municipal solid waste from around 60% to 78% by 2025. In making this commitment, Ljublana has also ruled out the possibility of erecting a new incinerator in order to ensure that it continues to reduce non-recyclable waste. A representative of Zero Waste Slovenia argued that separating waste is cheaper than its incineration and that the active participation of residents in separating waste as well as in its prevention and re-use is a key factor in the continuing success of recycling campaigns in Slovenia.

Why do public-private partnerships work in some cases, but not in others?

At the conference I truly enjoyed listening to the emotional stories told by the representatives of NGOs, local governments, and citizen groups. I left the event with more questions than answers. Perhaps I was missing the summary of all these stories. The case studies showed that local governments and civil society can successfully partner to solve some sustainability relevant issues in cities. But I found myself wondering why this works in some cases, but not in others. It remains to be seen how the New Urban Agenda of Habitat III will draw on these success stories and transmit this knowledge to cities around the world.

Header image: istock/Valdemar1991

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