In a quest to demonstrate their environmental friendliness, cities across the world are competing for sustainability accolades as metrics of their small ecological footprints. But measures of cities’ environmental sustainability are misleading and incomplete until they incorporate measures of social equity and further account for their global impact. Views of urban sustainability are currently too narrow, promoting the same model of high density, green cities as the pinnacle of efficient and prosperous development without addressing the problems created by human activity on the regional and global scale. Cities in the Global North with the means of building high-tech skyscrapers to facilitate density, integrating ecology into the built form to improve health and happiness, and facilitating advanced public transportation systems, bike-ability, and walkability, are lauded and upheld as the gold standard for other cities to aspire to.
As cities compete for these ecological accolades–an increasingly important metric in the bid to attract talent, investment, and tourism–they work at the municipal or neighborhood scale to revitalize parks, implement a bike-sharing program, or pursue whatever other sustainability initiative is feasible or trending. However, this approach not only can cause environmental gentrification , a process whereby neighborhoods become more desirable after a sustainability intervention which usually leads to displacement, but also disproportionately redistribute amenities and negative externalities across geographical areas. Displaced residents endure longer commutes to their jobs and are more likely to be reliant on automobiles as they are forced out of the city; businesses tout their energy-efficient offices while their production activity emissions occur elsewhere (often in the Global South); and the increasingly elite urban residents’ use of energy efficient lightbulbs and reusable bags offsets a miniscule fraction of the pollution from their many airplane flights.
Urban sustainability, and environmental sustainability more generally, have become popular, garnering societal support, and are increasingly used by cities and companies as a branding tool. However, sustainability has fallen prey to many of the criticisms and shortcomings of other societal movements and causes. While there is no question that we should embrace mechanisms to reduce our environmental impact and address climate change, it is also important to evaluate how this can be best achieved, while not allow marketing strategies to create a false sense of complacency that hinders real change from taking place. Often when a movement becomes popular, the true goals are lost in the frenzy to be a part of the trend. This can be seen in “pinkwashing,” a marketing trend in which beauty product companies advertise donating a portion of their proceeds to breast cancer research on products which contain chemicals linked to cancer. The environmental movement has not escaped this phenomenon and has its own “greenwashing,” which takes many forms—from companies advertising their carbon neutral offices while polluting heavily at their factories, to consumer products that tout biodegradable packaging while containing ingredients that will poison ecosystems once discarded. The same can be said of urban sustainability initiatives that solve one problem, only to create another down the road. How can we measure the benefit of turning a freeway into a park if the residents of the surrounding neighborhood are displaced to more affordable sprawl communities outside the city, driving hours every day to stay at their jobs?
Aside from sustainability initiatives that redistribute the problem somewhere else, some initiatives are helpful to the environmental movement, but distract from the need for larger-scale, more radical action. The recent decision by Starbucks to stop providing plastic straws was met with both praise and criticism, with some applauding the business for reducing the amount of plastic that would eventually end up in the ocean, others criticizing the act as a PR move that was minimal in comparison to the positive environmental impact the company could have if they addressed other higher-polluting activities first. Similar criticism has been leveled at the feminist movement: it has failed in progressing as an intersectional movement that encompasses the needs and struggles of all women. While issues like equal pay between genders are important to address, it is just as important to recognize that women of color are paid even less than white women, and are in need of equity with other women, as well as with men.
The urban sustainability movement’s weaknesses lies then in its susceptibility to branding schemes, its reluctance to fully tackle climate change issues at a systemic scale, and its failure to address problems with an intersectional approach that benefits and includes everyone in society. The response to climate change reports and its potential impact on the future of the planet often leads to a frenzy of activities, promoting how citizens can make a difference in an ad-hoc, incremental approach: ditching single-use items for reusable, upgrading to energy efficient appliances, driving an electric vehicle, following a vegetarian/vegan diet, and so on. While these actions are not counterproductive, they place the burden on individuals rather than on the actors in society who can make the biggest difference (due to their scale) through broad, systematic change. Furthermore, these actions often require the ability to alter lifestyles and spend money that many do not have. The majority of the world’s population, from the average American to the citizens of the less advantages regions of the world, cannot afford to buy a Tesla, eat organic or switch to some other high-cost diet.
This refusal to question the structure of our societies and political systems only encourages and incentivizes consumption and capitalism, and further places focus on individuals buying their way into sustainable lifestyles. It both detracts from real progress in halting climate change and imposes societal divides and stigmatization. In the same way that cities offload the blame and adverse effects of environmental pollution onto other less fortunate areas to benefit their quality of life and public image, so too does society place the heaviest burden of tackling climate change on the poor. Only when policy makers and powerful corporations come together to implement radical changes—changes that take into account different lifestyles, abilities, and inequities—will sustainability initiatives be truly effective.
Amaya Bravo-France is a Master in Urban Planning Candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.