The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 achieved some consensus around the idea of sustainable development. It endorsed the ideas of the Brundtland Report that had been published five years earlier. Of course, there were plenty of critics who felt that the agreements reached at Rio did not go far enough, and that the phrase “sustainable development” was an empty one that would permit continuing exploitation of the earth’s finite resources under a light green veneer.
In retrospect, Rio 1992 looks a high water mark of environmental campaigning. It came 20 years after the conference in Stockholm that had succeeded in putting the environment on the international agenda. The environmentalist movement grew during the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in North America and in Europe, including Eastern Europe. Campaigns against air pollution, for example, became a catalyst for internal criticism of the Communist regime in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Rio came at just the right time for the West. As the Cold War ended it seemed to some that a new era of prosperity lay ahead: it was possible to accommodate better environmental standards. The developing world was much more sceptical; the rich countries whose industrial growth had polluted the earth were wagging an admonitory finger at their newly industrialising competitors.
How Rio shaped planning
The ramifications of Rio were felt widely. A number of long-standing aspects of planning were given a new legitimacy. Not all development was good development anymore. After the 1980s in the UK that was a welcome message. The UK delegation to Rio was actually led by Michael Howard.
Public involvement in planning was seen as integral to achieving sustainable development, and not just a costly waste of time. Environmental regulation was further strengthened as the EU’s Directorate General for Environment began to roll out new Directives, emboldened by the success of Rio. Talented school leavers and graduates began to look for careers in environmental work.
More than 178 Governments adopted Agenda 21, and the call went out to “Think global, act local”. Chapter 28 of Agenda 21 noted the pivotal role of local government in fulfilling the objectives of sustainable development:
“Local authorities construct, operate and maintain economic, social and environmental infrastructure, oversee planning processes, establish local environmental policies and regulations, and assist in implementing national and sub-national environmental policies. As the level of governance closest to the people, they play a vital role in educating, mobilising and responding to the public to promote sustainable development.”
Rio also triggered an intensive phase of work to create sustainability indicators. Data collection on environmental conditions became more urgent. The value of monitoring was grasped.
Arguably the 1992 Earth Summit had more impacts on the theory and practice of planning than any other single event in the past two generations. One can debate whether the results were wholly desirable. “Sustainable” became a malleable label of convenience. Even accountants began to use it. The social dimension of sustainable development was overlooked: NIMBYism was reinforced. Innumerable compromises meant that the idea was honoured more in the word than in the deed.
Environmental idealism has been amongst the many innocent victims of the economic crisis that now stalks the world. The nations that assemble next year will be significantly different than they were in 1992. Not only has there been the economic and political rise of China, India and Brazil, but the heads of western leaders are now full of fears of recession, debts and defaults. Austerity and cuts are the order of the day. One small mercy is that the 2012 meeting is scheduled for June, so the US will not be represented by the ideologues of the Tea Party who view environment regulation as a threat to individual freedom. From a UK perspective, Rio 2012 could be Eric Pickles’ debut on the world stage.
It would be foolhardy to imagine that the voice of planners will sway the governments of the UN member states. However, it is even more certain that if planners say nothing at all they will have even less influence. As professionals and global citizens we should at least take a stance. We should look to build alliances with the other built environment professions to strengthen that voice. We need to network across the continents to ensure that the concerns of the global South are fully reflected.
The task ahead
So what should we be saying? First and foremost, the speculations of bankers and the models of econometricians do not supersede the laws of ecology. The environment has been one of their many innocent victims. Care for the environment can make a significant contribution to getting people back into work. Fiscal systems need to reward environmental conservation and penalise those creating environmental externalities. The Green Economy is sure to be a major theme.
More specifically we need to say – because nobody else will – that there can be no sustainable development without sustainable urbanisation. Urban development is happening on an unprecedented scale globally and will continue well beyond this generation. It creates the wealth and innovation needed to solve the problems we now face. But we need to manage places better – socially and economically as well as environmentally. Appropriate and effective regulation has a vital part to play. The details of an approach will depend on local circumstances and cultures, but the basics everywhere are the same: face up to the challenge of urban development; mobilise human resources for environmental conservation; experiment, innovate and give incentives to encourage conservation.
Rio +20 should inspire planners and related professionals to confront the global nature of the development processes in which they deal. The 1992 Earth Summit was a springboard because the political climate was right and there was a big idea that could be grasped and made palatable to many different parties. What big idea do we have to offer in 2012? The environment is something we all share, so we need to be working for development that does not cost the earth.