Coffee with Sue Parnell and Thomas Elmqvist

Can an ‘urban planet’ with over 4 billion people living in cities really be sustainable? A caffeinated conversation around cities and the global Urban Agenda with professors Sue Parnell, Thomas Elmqvist, and Michele Acuto. Recorded 24 October 2019 at Connected Cities Lab, University of Melbourne.

  • Transcript

    Michele Acuto:

    Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Michele Acuto, director of the Connected Cities Lab. Welcome to today's conversation with coffee, with CDs and a bit of a chat with experts on the international urban conversation. Today we've got professor Sue Parnell, who's incredibly titled Global Challenges Professor at the University of Bristol, and also affiliated with the University of Cape Town. And professor Thomas Elmqvist, who's a professor of Natural Resource Management at the University of Stockholm in the Stockholm Resilience Center. Now, the conversation today really comes from us trying to grapple with the idea of where we are at in an Urban Planet. In fact, a title of a recent publication that Thomas and Sue have been involved in. And where is it that the global conversation on cities is at and what it's getting us to?

    Where it comes from is that, in a sense, in 2015, 2016, even a few years before, we've seen cities really in the limelight of major global agendas. The sustainable development goals have recognized cities as sustainable communities is a critical issue for global sustainable development, but also other areas like the Paris agreement on climate change, like the United Nations new urban agenda. They've really put cities on the map and recognize that a 10 year, at least, or maybe 20-year long movement to try and put cities there up with states and other issues at the very centre of international affairs.

    Now, the question is for us winding up a few years later is where are we at now? Where's that global agenda going? Sue Parnell has called the sort of the global urban agenda, not just the specific new urban agenda treaty, or a program of the United Nations, but the bigger picture. So where are we at with cities? Where are they globally at the moment? And what we're going to do is start with Sue and see, where are we at with cities at the moment? Where are they in the global agenda?

    Sue Parnell:

    It's a difficult question to answer, partly because I think what you've correctly said Michele is there was a big shift over the last decade. There's been a really significant shift, partly because we recognize that most of the world's population was living in cities. And so transparently, it became really obvious. You can't talk about anything, healthcare education, natural resources unless you're talking about those things in an urban place. And so everybody agreed that this was an important thing to talk about, but they didn't necessarily talk about it in quite the same way. So I think when we start to talk about where are we at on the global agenda? I think one of the things we have to realize is that where we are at is that we know that cities are important, which I think is uncontested. Even people who always used to push back and say, what about the rural agenda now concede that yes, cities and rural and places are linked, but cities are important in and of themselves.

    And that I think is not going to go away, it's going to get stronger. The difficulty is that it's a difficult thing to push forward. Making the case that something is important is very different from beginning to implement the kinds of policies in and through cities. Partly because that's when the differences in how we actually understand the significance of the urban, of the city-ness of our world, of the urban planet... the title of the book you were talking about. And it's not even that those ideas are necessarily contradictory, it's a little bit like a chorus where different people have got different voices and they're all saying cities, cities, cities, but they're saying it in slightly different rhythms, they're staying in the slightly different temporalities. They're certainly saying it in with different tones and sometimes with quite a different understanding of what a city means.

    And so when I talk about the global urban agenda for me what that is, is the consensus that you can't think of the 21st century unless you think in city terms. I'd probably go further than that and say, you need to be quite city-centric. In other words, you need to think that you have to act probably first and foremost in and through a city and other things will follow. Not everybody would agree with that, but for me, that's quite important. And there are a lot of people who would agree with that, but having said that, where we are at is that some of the underlying tensions in the differences that we hold are beginning to surface. So a stupid example of it, or silly example, not a stupid example is that we've all got a very different definition of a city.

    So it's quite difficult too if you don't have a common object that you're talking about, it's quite difficult to even have a disagreement about what's important about that condition, so that's one example of it. I think the other thing which is really increasingly evident, and Thomas you can probably talk a little bit more about this because you've got much better specialist knowledge on it, is that different kinds of specialists would highlight and prioritize different sorts of change, so they think it's essential that we broker in and through cities. So for example, if you are a sociologist or political economist or somebody who's interested in inequality, you would really be first and foremost interested in the nature of the urban economy and the nature of the global economy, which is now urban. So you might be as interested in internal divisions in a city or you might be interested in the differences in levels of income and wealth and wellbeing across different kinds of cities.

    So even for people who are interested in inequality, they are not necessarily interested in the same kind of urban focus. So are you interested in a city? Are you interested in the system of cities? Are you interested in the way that there's an interrelationship between cities? These are all the urban question. And partly because what we did manage to do, which I think is really very significant is to get the urban question into the 2030 agenda with STG 11 and with what is known as SEG 11 plus 11, all the other goals we have to talk about that stuff and we probably have to find a way to talk about it that embraces our differences.

    Michele Acuto:

    Brilliant. Thomas, any thoughts about this?

    Thomas Elmqvist:

    Thank you. Yeah, I think there were a lot of deep thinking Sue, will read up. Your experience working with urban questions for so many years, I think give you a special, deep perspective on, on what has happened. And what I want to point at particularly is the breakthrough that STG 11 resulted in. I think it was a major breakthrough that we have that a specific goal on enhancing resilience and sustainability in human settlement. But I think also led to a very ambitious agenda and even in some countries, they viewed the STG 11 as the first goal they could start working with because they could start working locally and bring in local governments in the work. But I also think now a few years after their studies where we had a decision and they started to be implemented, that we realized how much they are interrelated.

    So we starting to get examples of how cities actually are quite successfully working on building sustainability and resilience within their own jurisdiction, but perhaps eroding it somewhere else and eroding many of the other goals as well. And I think this points to an insight we need to bring with us, is that we have had for some time, a deeper and more, a better understanding of urbanization on a global scale, and of course on the local scale because we have lots of city studies. We understand better and better interactions happening on that local scale, but we lack something in between, that regional scale, how cities are interacting within the region for good and bad.

    And what I want to see in the future is much more where the research community, together with local governments and other actors, could engage and in understanding those interactions and how we could shape those interactions so that cities become a positive force for a sustainable landscape management. And then I think cities really become this global actor that could change the development and the pathway and where cities actually will lead and integrate as many as possible of their studies but in a larger context.

    Michele Acuto:

    We promised a caffeinated conversation so let me throw you a couple of provocations on exactly what you said. I'm thinking let's start exactly where Thomas ended. 2016 and 2015 was a moment where there was an, exactly as Sue said, a quite clear consensus on this kind of conversation. Now we get to 2019, 2020, on the agenda we have some major geopolitical movements in the United States, in Australia, not just in the West, in fact in the Global South as well. We have major other issues popping up on the agenda, migration to say one and so forth. So quite facetiously one could say, have we, or had we in 2015, 2016 reached peak urban? Was it really the pinnacle of that recognition that got written into the 11th sustainable development goal? And what we see now is almost a bit of fatigue in engaging with urban issues or urban issues that don't appear as pressing as major geopolitical national conversations and concerns. Can I start with Sue because you're nodding so you clearly having a very caffeinated-

    Sue Parnell:

    No, I'm nodding that it's an issue, but I don't agree that we've reached peak urban. And the analogy that I would use is that I think that the passage of the goals was a little bit like a wedding, there's a high point and everybody took a photograph and for some people, that's quite contested because it, but actually the reality comes later. And for me, what I've been really struck by is that I have some quite anxious moments about the implementation of 2030, because the road ahead is not clear. But what I think is very significant is that what getting into the multilateral system meant, whether that's through the climate change agreements or whether it's through the STGs or whether it's through the new urban agenda, any of these big consensus agreements, is that what you do is it's like unleashing a slow, consistent force that then kind of rumbles along.

    It's like turning a huge ship. And you see that when you begin to see the reporting back from the national review processes that are coming through from the voluntary local reviews that are coming through. As the machinery of the states, of the nation-states and of local states really begins to implement. And I think for me, that's been absolutely fascinating because one of the things that urban people, urban scholars have never really done particularly well is to scale up beyond their particular city or local authority. But when you get organizations of local authorities and you get organizations of national states, the UN, saying the urban is important, then you begin to get things like national treasuries putting money and effort into saying what's our national urban policy?

    And I think that the return on that is not immediate. It's not feasible, it's city, not headlines. But if you are able to redirect budgets, and if you are able to begin to start chasing targets, as in 1.5 on the climate negotiations, and Thomas can speak much more about some of the biodiversity targets and begin to understand that these are urban, you land up shifting practice. Whether we prioritizing the right things or not, that we can have a very serious conversation about, but I think we've got into the bloodstream into the global governance bloodstream in a way that I think is a game-changer.

    Michele Acuto:

    Thomas, is it a happy, is it still a happy marriage? What do you think? Is it [inaudible 00:13:35]?

    Thomas Elmqvist:

    I think I agree with Sue that after 2015, we've had a period of what now? How should we actually implement this? And it's about finding the tools and the mechanisms to do that. But I think, I want to paint one narrative here, and that is one of the scientific input into their studies were actually this compilation is named the Great Acceleration. There was putting together data on energy use, on water use, on use of, of fibre and food and all these drivers that show that from mid-1950s up to now, we have had this enormous exponential growth. Whatever variable, whatever factor you looked at, they had a similar shape, and also the impacts mirror that. So we had deforestation, desertification and lots of other impact showed similar development and I think all of that data was very much an input and motivated STTs.

    Now we have 10, 15 years later made a compilation of new data. And what it shows is this continuous, but there are two major differences. One is that we have a shift, much larger shift to the Global South and we have a much larger shift to urban areas. So what I think is happening now that the whole world needs to change perspective from being on nation-states in the Global North to cities in the Global South. And I think that takes time and it takes, we need to struggle with how do we, what are the mechanisms? What are the strategies we can deploy?

    Michele Acuto:

    Let me pick you up on that one. I'm sure the whole world needs to change and look at cities, but if I had to put myself in the shoes of a relatively sceptical mayor and we see quite a few around here and I'd say yes, but as a mayor, as a city, why do I have to engage into these global conversations? Why can't I just do it myself or do it just as cities? There's been quite a lot of rhetoric of cities acting and states just looking and sitting and squabbling. So from a city's perspective, why does this matter? Why don't we start with Thomas and then Sue.

    Thomas Elmqvist:

    Again I think, we live in a global world where we have so many types of interconnections and complexity. So it's inconceivable that a city could act on its own and actually that the outcome would be anything successful or achieving an objective. So we need all this collaboration and we need also to much better understand complex interactions that are occurring on many, many different scales and need to take that on board when we develop strategies. So I think that there's so strong evidence and motivation why cities should collaborate and form networks and together develop strategies and share knowledge and technology to help each other.

    Sue Parnell:

    Yeah. I've never heard that said as nicely as Thomas said, that we need to shift from nation-states of the North to cities of the South. It's a very nice framing of that. And your question and your provocation Michele is a good one, is why would a mayor worry about that? And I think mayors are quite savvy and they know that their cities have to compete and compare and engage. And those are not the same thing with cities and a whole lot of other parts of the world. And that we're not all going to go back to the very ancient cities of Europe as our primary partners of exchange or competition, so any mayor who thinks that they can ignore the incredibly powerful emerging cities of the South is just naive, so that's the first thing.

    And that's in the conventional sense of city to city competition. I think that if I was a medical officer of health and I was advising my mayor, I would be very concerned that they understood some of the dynamics of what's going on in cities elsewhere. And in exactly the same way as the mayors of the late 19th and the early 20th century began to realize that, what went on in rich parts of the city and what we went on in poor parts of the city were connected through the vectors of disease. I think increasingly we have an understanding that it doesn't take very long for really highly infectious diseases to spread, whether it's zoonotic diseases or any other kind, from really fundamentally disadvantaged parts of the world to very, very advantaged ones and so you cannot insulate yourself.

    And the post-antibiotic world and that makes that really critical for mayors to understand that risk. And then finally, you probably know better than others, the cities have been really at the forefront of some of the climate mobilization and in the absence of leadership from nation-states. And the idea that you can have a conversation sitting in Melbourne about reading your building codes in Melbourne, and that that's somehow is going to address how much concrete or stone we are, generating. So not only are the Melbourne architects going to be doing a whole lot of the work in these emerging cities, but the materials that are used are global resources, it's Thomas's point about the hinterland. So I don't think mayors can be jurisdictional anymore, that's not leadership.

    Michele Acuto:

    They can't, or they can, but one fundamental thing that isn't talked much about, again, if we wind back to 2015 to today is lots of these global conversations embody and were created behind and around some fundamental tensions of the system itself. So from the mental set tensions of a system that remains dominated by states and people would argument national corporations or entities, and exactly as you put it, I think I completely agree, fabulous praise, definitely will steal that one, but the emergence of the Global South city short, but also puts right in front in the agenda, the fundamentals of inequities and inequalities that kind of system.

    Sue Parnell: Absolutely.

    Michele Acuto:

    The key question there for me then is, have we created a global urban agenda with fundamental inherent tensions that we just simply can't resolve? Solve that one for me in one minute or less.

    Sue Parnell: Go for it.

    Michele Acuto: I'm giving you coffee.

    Thomas Elmqvist:

    Thank you. Well, I think the global agenda needs to evolve all the time to take in... we need to take in new insights and also what's happening. The world is dynamic and changing all the time, so I think there are tensions, but I think also there will be ways we could try to resolve them. And also the UN system, there was once a hope that the city should have a stronger voice in the UN organizations, that hasn't materialized. But I still think there are, in behind, there are lots of movements and strong forces pushing in that direction, that city networks will have a strong voice considering the global agenda and that these tensions actually could come up and be discussed and resolved.

    Sue Parnell:

    Yeah, I would point at three tensions actually. The one is that the multilateral system is dominated by nation-states and cities and local authorities do not have an adequate voice in that regard, that's crucial. It's dominated by the Global North, even though we've been seen a massive re-mobilization of the G77 or any other mechanism. And then for me, probably partly because I work in a university, the one that is perhaps the most difficult, is that I don't think that the urban community, the urban scholarly community, is organized to bring its extremely diverse and quite vast experience and knowledge, but it's not organized in a way that makes the delivery of the messages from science legible or in any way accessible to policymakers. And that's partly because it's a new agenda and partly because we've inherited this rich disparate community, and it's a little bit like herding cats. Trying to get architects and engineers and anthropologists and medics and everybody into the room to talk to the urban question and we're going to have very... we absolutely have to put our minds to how we streamline some of those messages if we're going to have an impact.

    Michele Acuto:

    Let me pick up exactly where you ended Sue. So the question is where we as scholars coming from really different backgrounds covering relatively different themes, whether it's biodiversity, whether it's urban development, whether it's law and politics. But what can an academic sitting in an academic institution, or what can the academic community to do with respect to the global urban agenda and to the inherent tensions that we've just talked about? As a scholar, what are you going to do Thomas?

    Thomas Elmqvist:

    I think what I could contribute with all other scientist is to get a building more of an urban science, where we bring together much more of an interdisciplinary understanding of the very rapidly changing world around us. And try also to build a much deeper and more detailed horizon scanning what's going to happen in 30, 40, 50 years. And again, those insights are really important for policymaking today because as we know, we have a huge path dependence and everything related to urban development. So building this, taking advantage of the richness diversity and the deep insights we have in the global research community, but finding ways of working together maybe within a framework of an urban science and addressing all these different scales, and working also of course closely with local governments and taking the knowledge into action in a much more operational way.

    Sue Parnell:

    Yeah and I would endorse that completely. And for me, it's not about stopping doing fundamental science or social science, if that's how you define yourself. We absolutely want, if the majority of the world is urban, we need the majority of research to be done in and on urban places. And not all of it will be directed at this synthesis work or this interaction with policy. But it's very clear to me that if we are not able to draw scholars together, to look at the collective impacts, at the contradictions, to understand the consequences of some of the trajectories that we are on and to understand what the priorities need to be in order for us to shift the nature of cities and the transition that we're going through. Cities will land up being blamed, or urbanization will end up being blamed, whereas in actual fact, we simply haven't produced the kinds of evidence that would inform good urban management and good urban governance and good urban organizations.

    So we need the kind of complex systems of knowledge that are absolutely robust methodologically, where we very clear about some of the difficulties and tensions that we have in scaling up our knowledge. And that our policy-focused not, not policy serving and that are quite critical, but I think Thomas's point about long term and more representative, absolutely.

    Michele Acuto:

    Well, I think that brings up some of the real tensions and real possibilities. One critical question for us here is which coffee are you currently drinking? And why are you drinking that coffee?

    Sue Parnell: My own.

    Michele Acuto: Sue what are you drinking? It is your own coffee but what coffee is it?

    Sue Parnell: Long black.

    Michele Acuto: Long black because?

    Sue Parnell: Because I've got a scratchy throat and I need it to wash it down.

    Michele Acuto: Traveling academics, what are you drinking Thomas?

    Thomas Elmqvist: I'm having a cappuccino.

    Michele Acuto: Because?

    Thomas Elmqvist: Because there're fewer calories than in a cafe latte.

    Michele Acuto:

    Very scientific. Now, whether the conversation was a shot of espresso, like we all had in 2015 and 2014, trying to get STGs and Europe and agendas thorough, whether the conversation on the global urban agenda is becoming more of a slightly watered down cafe latte, or whether we need more caffeine in that conversation is really up to you to decide. But hopefully, this was informing: a bit caffeinated and a massive thanks to Sue and a massive thanks to Thomas for indulging us in our coffee and chats. Thank you.

    Thomas Elmqvist: Thank you.

    Sue Parnell: Thank you.

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Kate Murray

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