On Sunday13th August 1961 the lights went out at the Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. Within days a Wall 43 kms was erected that cut into the flesh of a living City and divided it until the heady collapse of 1989. Since then, Berlin has become one massive construction site as the Wall’s collapse triggered a tortuous and expensive process of unification and urban regeneration. Listening to extensive media coverage of Die Mauer and the aftermath, provokes images of other walls such as the high tech / low tech digital divide; food price hikes and energy blackouts that challenge the informal marketplace; formal and informal living space; those with lifestyles and others battling the survival agenda. As thoughts turn to climate change another wall is built between those who are changing their behaviours and others that cling to any statistical nuance to protect their better yesterdays.
For the first time in history more than half of the worlds population are living in cities. That means an estimated 3.5 out of 6 billion people and this will rise by another 2 billion over the next 20 years. People are living in the same urban space but, in terms of the amenities and quality of life that each citizen enjoys there are Berlin Walls all over the place – between those from the formal and informal neighbourhoods; the chic quartiers and the ghettoes; the favelhas and the designer lofts of urban living. And yet, you cannot fence in public health issues or, be exempt from the congestion that sees cars travel at the speed of a horse in the medieval age.
Back to Berlin and the aftermath. Suddenly, both sides of the Wall had to be stitched together – at a cost of €60 billion. Copper telephone wires met fibre optic cables; all utilities met in chaos. Westerners had driven their Mercs or caught the metro; Easterners had coped with the noxious fumes of smoking Trabbies or caught the tram. And yet, when the tram line was extended into the Western sectors of Berlin it was regarded as a step backwards and nothing to do with a sustainable future. There are other places with lessons on sustainability.
Take Cuba. Leaving aside Cold War clashes and turning to the hot environmental agenda, we can learn from a culture that has been forced to build an economy that values reuse and repair rather than simply throwing stuff away. For example, as covered elsewhere on this Blog; Cuban mechanics have developed the extraordinary skills that keep fleets of 1950’s cars, buses and taxis on the road way beyond their sell-by date. When the Berlin Wall fell and Soviet oil ran out; Cuba had to ditch industrial-type export farming and turn to organic and urban agriculture to survive. Family budgets shrank yet, Cubans got healthier. And whilst GDP declined, literacy and gender equality climbed.
As the press latches on to the falsification of climate related data at the prestigious University of East Anglia Climate Institute perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves of the behavioural challenge that lies ahead – unarguably. There are 6 billion people on the planet soon to climb to 9 billion. What are we going to do to ensure that scarce resources are going to last?
What are we going to do to link parts of cities that have very different status? Perhaps we are going to have to learn to develop our cities from the bottom up and not top down taking our inspiration from things like ant colonies which behave with the intelligence no particular ant possesses. and most of the cities that will house the global upsurge in population will develop barrios; quartiers and neighbourhoods the same way.
Transforming urban spaces into an inclusive shape is going to take far more than plug and play ways of living from the developed world.