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City planners and policy-makers are forever thinking about how to make today’s cities more sustainable – more green, more healthy, more resilient to climate change – and Tufts University urban and environmental policy and planning professor Julian Agyeman, of Boston, encourages that thinking.
However, the University of Otago School of Geography’s annual Ron Lister Public Lecture guest speaker also sees a problem.
Marginalised people are too often ignored, swept aside, and “increasingly not belonging”.
“Who is deciding what our cities can become?” Prof Agyeman asked last week.
“My contention is: a city can only become as good as the people who live there.
“If we are getting rid of lower income, minority, indigenous – all those other groups – then we are just an elite dreaming about what cities can become.
“We should never stop dreaming what our cities can become.
“But here’s the problem, people are increasingly not belonging.”
He said the Ko te Tuhono sculpture by Dunedin artist Ayesha Green in the Octagon allowed tangata whenua to see themselves in the city.
It fostered that sense of belonging. But that alone was not enough.
It did not matter whether one spoke about the United States, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, or anywhere else, he said.
“You’ll find that basically lower income, people of colour, indigenous people are more threatened by environmental crises, or the siting of facilities that middle-class people don’t want in their neighbourhoods.”
Policy-makers and planners were good at thinking about the environmental effects, the economic costs, and the technical feasibility of projects, but social justice and equity considerations were traditionally “second order”, he said.
Typically, once the environmental effects, the economic costs, and the technical feasibility were considered, then social justice and equity could be weighed.
“We need to centre social justice and equity in policy making,” Prof Agyeman said. “You don’t get to greater social justice and equity unless you put it front and centre with economic, technical, scientific and other issues.
“Twenty years ago, the environmental movement chose issues – conservation, biodiversity – issues that weren’t necessarily the issues that affect people in (for example) South Dunedin – public health issues, or flooding, or things like that – and why didn’t the environmental movement choose those issues?
“Because, it’s largely white and middle and upper-middle class.
“These weren’t issues that affected it.”
Prof Agyeman said the environmental movement had been critiqued as “the last, ‘great’ white movement” because it had not really engaged with the concerns of people on a lower income.
That was why the parallel movement, environmental justice, had grown around the world.
Prof Agyeman has been part of that growth.
He is the originator of the concept of “just sustainabilities” which explores the intersecting goals of social justice and environmental sustainability.
Forty years ago when he started his work, he said he had to use moral arguments, telling organisations it was their “moral duty” to be more inclusive, but now he said “it’s about survival”.
The head of one of the United States top planning schools said he now tells organisations they would not last unless the organisations began to look like the changing populations of the communities around them.
Before Prof Agyeman’s talk at the Moot Court lecture theatre at the university’s Richardson building the School of Geography celebrated its 75th anniversary.
This week Prof Agyeman will speak at the New Zealand Geographical Society Conference in Christchurch.
This is his first visit to New Zealand.