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Shooting for the Moon – From a City Near You

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on August 07, 2014

From 1942 to 1946 more than 100,000 scientists, engineers, military strategists, factory workers and financiers came together at a cost of $2 billion to develop the world’s most powerful weapon. The Manhattan Project brought about the end of World War II and reconfigured the world’s geopolitical map. In 1961 a similar ‘grand challenge’ brought together four-times as many scientists and ten-times as much funding. The Apollo Moon Launch spurred and grew the capacities of the US and her allies. Neil Armstrong set foot on Tranquility Bay July 20, 1969 just eight years after President Kennedy issued the challenge to Congress.

We now face a challenge of even greater magnitude, but this time we need to involve the whole world and we need to foster cooperation, rather than competition and dominance. We need to answer the challenge of this century that together we have a chance to meet. Divided we will surely condemn our children and grandchildren to a harsher, more fractured, less hospitable world. Within 35 years we need to build sustainable cities for another three billion new urban residents, and while doing this we need to reinforce and repair our existing cities, home to an already burgeoning three billion residents. Within the careers of today’s graduates we need to build sustainable cities for more than six billion people.

What makes this challenge particularly difficult is that no head of state can issue the call, no corporation can champion the path for long, and even a city cannot lead on its own. We live in a fractured world where every country and company, and almost every person competes for stature and resources. Cities compete with each other, and often with their national governments. There will be winners and losers in the race to sustainable cities, but if we look at what ‘a win’ is in say 2050, everyone, every city, every country, has to cross the finish line. Not necessarily as best friends, but certainly as fellow travellers.

Could the US have landed a man on the moon if it had to do it in cooperation with the USSR, or build an atomic bomb in partnership with Germany and Japan, as well as the UK and Canada?

Somewhat in the same way that all participating athletes need to come together to support an Olympic Games or a World Cup, we now all have to come together to support a platform of urban sustainability. We need to agree on something that is bigger than us as individuals, as a tribe, a city or a country.

Cities and countries are rallied a little differently. Larger countries like Canada the US, with many cities, usually need a grand vision to rally behind, like a moon-shot, or battling an evil empire. Cities on the other hand tend to be more pragmatic, despite the occasional impassioned support of a city’s football, baseball or hockey team. Everyone, but especially cities, now needs to rally behind the goal of building better cities.

By their nature, their permanence, and their vitality, cities must be more matter-of-fact than their state and national political compatriots. The ‘there is no Democrat or Republican way to pick up the garbage’ rings true everywhere. But it’s a lie. All politics is local and there is indeed enormous political influence on how garbage is collected – is it with unionized labour, is it by weight, are poor neighbourhoods serviced – all local politics playing out on a street near you. ‘Democrat or Republican, I don’t care, just make sure you pick up my garbage,’ rings more true. This spirit of pragmatism, of basic service delivery, is now what cities must deliver the world over. Countries and companies will continue to compete – that’s what the rich in the cities pay them to do. While others may fight over future shares, cities have to deliver a global urban platform of simple sustainable basic services. Garbage under foot is never as sexy as splitting an atom, or shooting for the stars and moon overhead, but cities get it done. In building sustainable cities for some 6 billion people, cities will not be able to defer to anyone else. Messy as it will be, this is their job, this is their challenge, and this is the hope for all of us. Time to lend them a hand.

Filed under: Sustainability 101