Arguably Sandy also helped Obama to get re-elected. After his wobble in the first Presidential debate, Sandy rode to his rescue. It may have convinced some undecided voters that Republican policies on environment were ill-founded, so maybe their economic and fiscal policies were equally unreal. More fundamentally it gave Obama the chance to demonstrate competence and leadership in the face of the tragedy. The comparison with George W. Bush at the time of Katrina was so evident that it did not need making.
Of course, Sandy’s record was not without blemish. At 900 miles across and with 150km per hour winds, the largest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic was bound to do damage. It killed more people in Haiti (which it passed by rather than through) than in USA, and made 200,000 homeless there. Quite simply, vulnerability to disasters is not just a matter of the weather, but deeply affected by poverty and poor governance, and a weak system of land use planning and disaster planning is part of poor urban governance.
Dash for gas
Planners and environmentalists across the US were encouraged by Obama’s victory. This largely reflected the extent to which Tea Party activists had embraced de-regulation with the same passion that a member of the National Rifle Association has for his semi-automatic. However, the US government still seems unlikely to champion the climate change cause, especially given the way that fracking is changing the geo-politics of energy. Energy self-sufficiency plus low energy gas for domestic and industrial consumers is an irresistible temptation, and no doubt Obama will recall Oscar Wilde’s epigram, “I can resist anything except temptation”.
The UK government is similarly signed up for the “dash for gas”, with all the implications it has for pushing the anticipated raise in temperature by 2100 above the critical 2 degrees centigrade threshold. No doubt Treasury economists will find a way of pricing and trading the risk of small earthquakes near Blackpool and smart derivatives traders in the City of London will be able to make fortunes in selling these new commodities to each other.
2012 saw the world revisit the historic 1992 UN summit on the environment in Rio. While Rio 1992 is still remembered 20 years on, Rio 2012 is already forgotten. The reason is simply because there was lots of diplomatic language, but no leap forward. As Felix Dodds and Anita Nayar have pointed out, all the major sustainable development conference have taken place at difficult political times. Stockholm 1972 was quickly overtaken by the 1973 Yom Kippur war and consequent OPEC-induced oil crisis. Rio in 1992 followed the First Gulf War and the collapse of the USSR. The summit at Johannesburg in 2002 was a year after 9/11.
Now in 2012 Obama, Cameron and Merkel were too busy with the economic crisis to make the trip to Rio. As Dodds and Nayar observed “Many of the developed countries had to be dragged to the table.” After 20 years of talking there was still no global agreement to limit subsidies to things like fossil fuels that create harmful environmental impacts. While the EU withdrew into its shell, the lead was increasingly taken by the “BASIC” countries – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – further evidence of what the world we are moving to will look like.
On the more positive side, and again following Dodds and Nayar, there was agreement to explore Sustainable Development Goals to kick in after the time horizon of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. Also, the idea of the “green economy” got official recognition, with the crucial caveat that it can mean more than just a high-tech’ version of business as usual. As we look to 2013, this is surely a key area for work by planners and activists everywhere: what would a green economy look like in your area? What practical steps can be taken to create new forms of economic activity. As the long period of austerity still stretches out ahead of us, creative approaches that do not rely on the traditional failed economic model are more urgently needed than ever.
Food security and more sustainable and equitable food chains are now also on the agenda. This again poses a challenge to planners and economic development workers who traditionally have shown little concern for these matters. Either they need to begin to address them – or face challenges about why they are blind to them. Water is also rising on the political agenda, with threats of drought and desertification beginning to add some momentum to the long standing lack of access to safe drinking water for millions of households globally. While the details will vary from region to region, this is again clearly an issue that the planning profession needs to engage with locally and globally.
Finally, it is worth remembering that the final outcome text that the governments of the world signed up to did discuss human settlements and recognised the importance of integrated planning and partnerships between cities and communities. If you are talking to Ministers, you could remind them of that.
The Prosperity of Cities
UN-Habitat produced its biennial “State of the Cities” report. This year the theme was “The Prosperity of Cities”. It studied 50 cities and on the evidence collected concluded that “efficient urban planning and urban management are perceived as the most important conditions for shared prosperity.” (p.110). However, it recognises that a restoration of public confidence in planning is needed and that planning must move on from “mere technical functionality”.
“The five ‘spokes’ in the ‘wheel of urban prosperity’ (productivity, infrastructure, quality of life, equity and environmental sustainability) can be deliberately enhanced (as opposed to being allowed to occur all by themselves) through the strategies and interventions that are part and parcel of urban planning,” says the report. Again there is a clear agenda here for those struggling to defend outmoded planning systems against political attacks. It is time to get on the front foot.
One place to watch might be Tallinn, capital of Estonia. On New Year’s Day it becomes the first city in the world to launch free public transport for its citizens. Four tram lines, eight trolleybus lines, and dozens of bus routes – will be completely free for citizens of Tallinn. This follows a referendum in which three out of every four voters backed the idea, as part of an attempt to make the city one of Europe’s ‘greenest’. It ticks those five boxes and shows how a small country can play a leadership role globally.
This blog was first posted on the Planning Resource website on 24 December 2012.
Comment from Antii Roose, Estonian Observatory