Tag Archives: environment

Urban Peripheries and Politics of the Slum

My article: Urban Peripheries and Politics of the Slum
The world is over half urban. In 1990, less than 40% of the global population lived in a city, but as of 2010, more than half of all people live in an urban area. By 2050, this proportion will increase to a staggering 70%.

The bulk of new urban population growth will be in the so-called Global South: Sub Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, with an increasing number of people across the class spectrum settling in peripheral and suburban areas in both megacities and smaller towns. The nature of that growth, however, will not follow a familiar pattern. Dr. Malini Ranganathan, an Associate Professor at American University’s School of International Service and an expert on urban geography, says informality is the “new normal” of urbanization. This new kind of growth defies binary terms like “slum” and brings questions of equality to the forefront of the discussion on city planning and development, making the very concept of citizenship incredibly malleable and negotiable.
Ranganathan’s recent research focused on Bangalore, a city of over ten million people, where much of the growth is occurring in the so-called urban peripheries—the outskirts of town, where people are securing their claim to urban land through a series of negotiations and adaptions that while informal in nature are reshaping the very notion of “right to the city.” The discourse of the slum, Ranganathan explains, is incredibly limiting and doesn’t recognize informal land tenure. “We are referring to something akin to occupancy urbanism, where the people first occupy the space and then start to put in place the mechanisms of livelihood and the infrastructure. Many of these occupants might purchase what is initially considered farm land and then through negotiations and forming a relationship with bureaucrats are able to create a sort of an ambiguous ownership, which is in a sense advantageous to both the state and the inhabitants.” Much more noteworthy, however, is that while home owners associations in the United States are usually preoccupied (or rather, obsessed) with safeguarding property values, the ad-hoc neighborhood welfare associations she observed in Bangalore formed to make demands on the state. By banding together in groups, occupants gain the power to advocate for critical services such as water access and sanitation. As one of the residents described it, “The ‘we’ feeling has to be there.”
While informal urban growth seems to be especially prevalent in the developing world, it is certainly not foreign to the United States. Every day in American cities street vendors spread out their wares on sidewalks, food trucks serve lunch from the curb, and homeowners hold sales in their front yards. “Squatting” or adverse possession, as it is referred to legally, is becoming a little bit more prevalent, especially in cities like Baltimore and Detroit. “Baltimore is full of buildings artists have used over time to solve their problems,” says Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. “Many of them live illegally in buildings where they rent studio space.” All of these ground realities would require urban planning to be less top-down and more responsive. “The question remains about the extent these lofty goals can stir political action—how can the right to the city be institutionalized and to not rely so heavily on tech fixes. This issue is not just an environmental or technical issue but also a heavily political and social one. It is about social dynamics such as making public transit more accessible, new sustainability initiatives, and providing more affordable housing,” says Ranganathan.
Ranganathan also discussed a recent shift in the discussion on urban inequity. ”Urban inequity is now front and center on the urban policy agenda. Inequality is proving to be bad for development, period.” At the most recent World Urban Forum, the theme was Urban Equity in Development—Cities for Life. The concept paper of the forum argues that, “unequal cities are all-around inefficient, politically volatile, unsafe, and unsustainable, and just plain bad for human development.” The recognition that inequality is detrimental to overall human well-being is a notable shift away from decades of mainstream development policy guided by trickle-down economics and top-down ideas meant to simply offer band-aid solutions to the have-nots while simultaneously focusing on them as the problem. More importantly, the notion that growth and equity are antithetical is fast losing ground: “The OECD dismissed the assumption that the benefits of economic growth automatically filtered down to the poorest in society. The Economist has just affirmed that inequality has reached a level which makes it inefficient and bad for growth. By the same token, the IMF has recognized that inequality slows down economic growth, weakens the demand and contributes to financial crises. When Henry Lefebvre wrote about the “right to the city” in 1968, he was referring to far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources. Right to the city is a common rather than an individual right; it relies on collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. It is the right to inhabit the city, the right to produce urban life, and to right of inhabitants to remain unalienated from the urban life. Yet, on a practical level, making these lofty ideals a reality requires political commitment. Until the time the powers in place wake up to the trenchant realities on the ground, informal settlements and their safety issues and environmental hazards will continue to exist and workers who build glitzy skyscrapers in global cities will still only be able to live in them while working on their construction.

Pandora’s Promise–A Movie Review

Pandora’s Promise Review

Pandora’s Promise is an exposé on the past and future of nuclear energy that readjusts a lot of public assumptions in a rather explosive way. By featuring a coterie of respected, world-renowned environmentalists who have had a change of heart on the issue, the film, although clearly on the pro side of the debate, shines light on a paradigm shift afoot. The crux of its argument is “to be anti-nuclear is to be in favor of using fossil fuel.” In other words, despite all the strides made towards renewable energy sources, we remain mired in the climate-destroying reality of oil and coal usage for energy production and this state of affairs is not tenable from any perspective. The film astutely observes that nuclear power has been forever imprinted into the public’s psyche as a “weapon we feel badly about” and seeks to destigmatize it, remove it from its Armageddon-esque milieu, and put it in a different and less malevolent context.

Pandora’s Promise does rely a bit heavily on the “if these environmentalists and scientists had a change of heart, does that not indicate the general public should as well” persuasion tactic. The film features appearances from Stewart Brand (The Whole Earth Catalog), Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb), Mark Lynas (formerly of Earth First and Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet), and Gwyneth Cravens (Power to Save the World). It also has references to extra star power for added ammunition – Richard Branson and Microsoft’s Paul Allen have joined in – and Bill Gates has formed a nuclear power company that is working on a reactor for use in the developing world. Nonetheless, it occasionally veers into the territory of portraying the anti-nuclear movement as stodgy fear- mongers in a rather sweeping sense.

The documentary thoroughly covers the history of the use of nuclear energy, bringing in many of the original nuclear scientists to speak about its development. Charles Till explains that in the 50s, two types of nuclear reactors were being developed: the breeder reactor, which breeds plutonium and recycles it, and the light water reactor, which creates much more waste. The selection of the light water reactor to use as a commercial reactor appears to have been made very short-sightedly and, not surprisingly, not by a scientist but by a military official. Since then, technology has progressed in a significant sense with many breeder reactors built successfully and progressing to a third generation reactor which recycles all waste. More importantly, disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are now much more preventable by implementing containment chambers and adequate cooling systems. The film also brings up a lot of lesser-known examples of how political pressure and public opinion has prevented a lot of facilities from opening—for example, a nuclear waste storage facility was constructed in Nevada and never used, despite the success of other such pilot projects in New Mexico. There were other plants which were built and never went into operation; the Integral Fast Reactor program was shut down.
The main point of Pandora’s Promise is that not until recently has it become apparent how huge the gap between fossil fuels and renewables is. Electricity is the one thing that causes the most significant improvement in the quality of life. With the growing development of the “Global South,” the need for energy is only expected to rise; energy consumption of the planet is expected to double by 2050. Use of coal is, shockingly, accelerating and it has cemented its role as both the most common source of energy and the fastest growing. The environmental effects of this fact are clearly destructive. One pound uranium is the equivalent of 5000 barrels of oil in energy output. Thus, it quickly becomes apparent why nuclear energy is viewed as “clean and efficient.” The film brings up the example of France which derives nearly 80% of its energy from nuclear power, has the cheapest energy in Europe, and the lowest carbon dioxide emissions.
The film stumbles when it addresses the specter of nuclear accidents and the eerie aftermath of contamination for generations, glossing over the dangers in a rather dismissive way. It argues that in terms of the mortality rate, nuclear is the safest industry, second only to wind. The assertion about Chernobyl and Fukushima that “there were so few casualties,” may be factually true but it does not really address the afterlife of radiation and its health risks. The assertion that “only” plutonium is long-lived and that nuclear waste is volumetrically non-significant (e.g. all the fuel rods could be fitted into a football field) is meant to assuage fears yet is not explored as in-depth as it could have.
Director Robert Stone relies on many detonative revelations to make a very compelling case for nuclear energy. The presence of environmentalists advocating for it certainly gives its credibility a strong boost. The assumptions we have held to be true for so long will indeed need some processing before they can be dispatched away as “we were wrong.” A more measured response might be that global warming is a serious threat and nuclear energy certainly poses a very promising solution, but one can’t help but feel as though it is a solution *only* because of our insatiable energy thirst and its ensuing pollution. With technical advances, the risk of accidents and toxic waste leaks is also decreasing; nevertheless, it will take some time before the general public can be thoroughly at ease about it. When Stone asks Lynas if he is still pro-nuclear when he visits Fukushima, his retort back to Robert Stone, “Are *you* still pro nuclear?” is not exactly entirely fear-allaying.