WAYS & MEANS: Broadening the Sustainability Conversation

At a Siemens-sponsored gathering of the smart cities set, the fair-haired children of the movement were present and accounted for. But it was 41-year-old Mayor Parks Tau of Johannesburg who grounded his urban policy concerns in issues that made sense: Public safety, food insecurity and truly diverse public engagement.

Johannesburg Mayor Mpho Parks Tau, unveiling bust of former Joburg Mayor Amos Masondo here, says you can’t talk about sustainability without confronting public safety and health issues. Credit: Africhts.com

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Ways & Means is a weekly column by Mark Alan Hughes on economics, politics and sustainability in Philadelphia.

Last week, I reported on some of the keynote speakers at the London opening of the Siemens Corporation’s new world headquarters for its Sustainable Cities Initiative. And those speakers, like UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos, were certainly world-class and all. But some of the experience most relevant to Philadelphia came from the remarks by several mayors, especially Mpho Parks Tau, executive mayor of Johannesburg.

At this gathering of the smart cities set, the fair-haired children of the movement — Barcelona, Trondheim, Curitiba, New York and of course, London — were present and accounted for. But it was the 41-year-old Tau who grounded his urban policy concerns in issues that made sense to this Philadelphian: Public safety, food insecurity and truly diverse public engagement.

It’s tough to talk about sustainability without talking about infrastructure investment. Like other green mayors, Tau discusses infrastructure using all the right words: Climate resilience, total cost accounting, public participation. But it’s when he moves away from general smart-city consensus that the former community organizer — Tau got his start in politics as the president of the Soweto Youth Congress, fighting against apartheid policies alongside Nelson Mandela — displays the green jujitsu of a mayor who knows just how broad the politics of sustainability can be.

The Siemens event had a Disneyesque Tomorrowland vibe, and Tau stood out in stark contrast when he named public safety his biggest sustainability challenge. Sustainability types can get brain lock in the face of such old-school policy concerns. Tau counters that with his position that system integrity is just as critical to sustainability as resource allocation. And a system where violence is concentrated in certain neighborhoods, among certain demographics, doesn’t have system integrity.

Philadelphia’s own experience is pushing the limit on that claim: How far can we go with our many positive developments with the mayhem that happens every weekend just beyond the activity of Center City?

Tau’s second-biggest sustainability challenge, food insecurity, is also familiar to Philadelphians. Here Tau makes a sustainability move consistent with Mayor Michael Nutter’s Greenworks playbook, and he defines the problem in terms of public health and ties the solution to jobs. One of Nutter’s early mayoral actions was to sign a Food Charter and create a Food Policy Council that makes exactly those same connections. Tau is applying a similar diagnosis to mobilize health resources on nutrition and prescribe a similar regimen of training, investment and infrastructure to support local food production.

The avoided costs that derive from preventing malnutrition are enough to please any sustainable policy geek. But that pales in comparison with the politics of engaging people in securing reliable food for themselves and their children.

Philadelphia can mix it up with Boston and Brooklyn on many urban policy topics of the day: Apps, arts, innovation. But what makes us interesting and important is that we also have just as much cred as Curitiba and Johannesburg on the things that improve the lives of ordinary people every day.

Mark Alan Hughes teaches at PennDesign and was Mayor Nutter’s Campaign Policy Director in 2007 and Chief Policy Adviser in 2008-09.

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Mark Alan Hughes is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at PennDesign and an Investigator at the US Department Of Energy’s Energy Efficient Buildings Hub at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He is a Faculty Fellow of the Penn Institute for Urban Research, a Senior Fellow of the Wharton School’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership, and a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Penn’s Fox Leadership Program. He has been a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Urban Institute, and a senior adviser at the Ford Foundation. He was the Chief Policy Adviser to Mayor Michael Nutter and the founding Director of Sustainability for the City of Philadelphia, where he led the creation of the Greenworks plan. Hughes holds a B.A. from Swarthmore and a Ph.D. from Penn, joined the Princeton faculty in 1986 at the age of 25, has taught at Penn since 1999, and is widely published in the leading academic journals of several disciplines, including Economic Geography, Urban Economics, Policy Analysis and Management, and the Journal of the American Planning Association, for which he won the National Planning Award in 1992.

Tags: philadelphiasustainable citiescrimepublic safetylondonsmart citiesjohannesburg

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