The Challenges of Low Carbon Urban Development

Mark Borchers from SEA comments on the C40 City Mayors Summit, held in Johannesburg in February.

There are plenty of ideas about low carbon urban development. These tend to circulate in policy documents, reviews and conference presentations. The challenge is to take these ideas and let them take root and gain life in the messy engine rooms of cities where the aircon may have been broken for many months, the average qualification basic, a receptionist painting their nails, the engineer gone and the finance officer unwilling to do anything new. It may take 3 months just to appoint a staff member; up to six months to issue a tender and appoint a contractor. I have heard of instances where money for retrofit of public lighting ended up paying staff salaries; and funds for solar water heating installation could not be spent as there was no engineer to sign off that the houses could structurally bear the load.

Scratch the surface, however, and there is also a wealth of experience, irreplaceable on-ground technical knowledge and institutional memory. I have also experienced, across almost every municipality in South Africa at least, a massive commitment to meet the environmental challenges facing us.

In February city leaders met in Johannesburg for the C40 City Mayors Summit. Political analysts Richard Calland and Jerome van Rooij (‘African cities need to work together’) posed the question: will African cities be able to ‘catch the wave’ of cities being “where it’s at” with regard to sustainable development and green-growth, given their fiscal and political/legal limitations? Not without a major gearing up, they conclude.

SAMSET aims to address this, following a model that has been enormously successful in South Africa to date: taking an sustainable energy/urban development idea, working on it hand in hand with city staff; when it hits a snarl-up, deepening the investigation, exploring a number of possibilities and moving closer to a solution – a programme of real intervention. As the work happens, the finance begins to flow in, the capacity to do the work expands, new offices develop and the institution reconfigures itself. Incremental, but potentially powerful.

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