Cover Image
close this bookFood and Energy - Strategies for Sustainable Development (UNU, 1990, 81 p.)
View the documentPreface
View the document1 Introduction
View the document2 Analytical Framework
View the document3 Integrated Food-Energy Systems
View the document4 Alternative Urban Development Strategies
View the document5 Urban Agriculture
View the document6 New Rural-Urban Configurations
View the document7 The Challenge of Biotechnology
View the document8 Sustainable Development
View the document9 Conclusion
View the documentAppendix I: FEN Programme Activities
View the documentAppendix II: FEN Publications
View the documentReferences

4 Alternative Urban Development Strategies

The Urbanization Race

The second major focus of FEN was on ways to increase access to food and energy by the urban poor through encouraging innovative, resource-conserving, and employment-generating urban development strategies. FEN's urban projects shared many points in common with the "resource-conserving" cities of Meier (1974) and the Managing Energy and Resource Efficient Cities (MEREC) programme of USAID (Bendavid-Val 1987).

Urbanization is by far the most important social transformation of our times. In 1800 no more than 3 per cent of the world's population lived in cities, but by the year 2000 urban dwellers will outnumber the rural population. Furthermore, most of the increase will occur in third world cities. Bairoch (1933) estimates that from 1950 to 2025 the urban population in third world countries will have multiplied almost 16 times, from less than 200 million to 3,150 million people (table 1). By comparison, the urban population in industrialized countries multiplied only about five times from 1840 to 1914, the period of its most intensive growth.

The consequences of these trends are assessed in diametrically opposed fashion by the supporters and the foes of large cities. The former emphasize the civilizing role of cities, the high productivity achieved by industries and modern services thanks to their unprecedented degree of concentration, the amenities of urban areas (in sharp contrast to the apparent drudgery of rural areas and smaller centres), and the multiple opportunities for work and self-realization offered to their inhabitants.

The latter insist on the parasitic character of the city, diverting and draining for its own advantage the economic surplus produced by the countryside. They point to the deep disruption of the urban environment with the attendant health hazards, the often appalling housing and working conditions of the urban poor, the endemic unemployment and underemployment, and the social anonymity resulting from sub-human living conditions.

Jacobs (1984) may have gone too far in her unilateral celebration of cities as prime movers of economic development. Braudel's interpretation (1979) is much more subtle. Whatever the wonders achieved by cities with the economic surplus that they have been able to concentrate, one should not forget that primitive accumulation was largely through extracting this surplus from the peasantry of today's industrialized countries and their colonies.

Table 1. Urban population by major regions in percentage, 1960-2025

Region 1960 1970 1980 2000 2025
World 33.6 36.9 39.9 48.2 62.4
Less developed 21.4 25.2 29.4 40.4 57.8
More developed 60.3 66.4 70.6 77.8 85.4
Africa 18.4 22.9 28.7 42.2 58.3
Latin America 49.3 57.4 65.4 76.9 84.4
North America 69.9 73.8 73.8 78.0 85.7
East Asia 23.1 26.3 28.0 34.2 51.2
South Asia 18.3 21.2 25.4 36.8 55.3
Europe 60.5 66.1 71.1 78.9 85.9
Oceania 66.3 70.8 71.6 73.0 78.3
USSR 48 8 56.7 63.2 74.3 83.4

Source: UN Population Division

At stake for third world countries is the opportunity to transform their condition of "lateness" into an advantage. Modern science and technology associated with a critical analysis of the impasses of industrialized societies should allow third world countries to find alternative patterns of urbanization and to implement them at far less social, economic, and ecological cost.

This is not to say that substantial progress could not be achieved in third world countries through more traditional, Western-style methods. But the magnitude of the financial effort required makes this proposition unrealistic in the present political context, even if the volume of necessary investment does not exceed the theoretical possibilities of the world economy.

Yet it may also be said that urbanization cannot be carried out along the old lines, following the model of the large cities of the industrialized countries. To put it more precisely, in third world countries the pattern of city growth reflecting that of the industrialized countries - and the resultant increase in the speed of urbanization, render it practically impossible to cater to the basic requirements of the majority of third world residents.

To simply house the additions to the urban population between now and the end of the century, the equivalent of over 600 cities of one million residents each would need to be built. An exhaustive study of the metabolism of Hong Kong by UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere programme (MAB) concluded that the energy costs of constructing and operating such cities between 1978 and the year 2000 would be five times higher than total world consumption of energy in 1973 (Newcombe et al. 1978). Future cities must therefore be resource conserving. The pioneering work of the Washington-based Institute for Local Self-reliance shows that the scope for energy conservation in the urban setting is, in fact, quite high (Morris 1982).

Finally, one ought to mention the lack of appropriate policies to implement such an ambitious construction programme and to apply resource conservation principles in an equitable manner. Hardoy (1982) rightly pointed out that in urban studies a certain degree of consensus exists about macro-problems, but nothing of the kind happens with respect to micro-problems which affect low income groups more directly. There is a visible gap between the effort made to arrive at the diagnosis and the neglect in creating the necessary policy instruments.

The Real Economy of Cities

Special reference should be made here to the FEN project with the Colegio de Mexico, "Going beyond the formal/informal dichotomy" and proposing a more comprehensive analysis of the "real" urban economy (Sachs 1987). This was done in the context of seven large cities in both the South and the North, exposing the web of interconnected markets, non-market activities, and the multiple forms of state intervention. An overview of this project can be found in Sanchez (1988).

The ways in which market and non-market economic activities combine are quite complex. They constitute the fabric of the "real" economy. Non-market economic activities should not be viewed as a residual category designed to disappear with technical progress. On the contrary, their share in terms of time allocation may increase, pari passu, with the reduction of the working time against wages, as a matter of deliberate choice. The market/non-market dichotomy therefore offers a useful starting point to move in the direction of a development theory not exclusively based on the categories of the market economy and on monetary metrics.

The informal sector is often referred to as "hidden" or "invisible". A better term would be "statistically unrecorded" as most of the activities in the market segments encompassed by these names are conducted out in the open. Neither the "formal/informal" nor the "open/hidden" dichotomy offers a suitable framework to describe the latticework of the real economy. Moreover, they lend themselves to statistical manipulation, as both the informal and hidden sectors are in reality residual categories.

By definition, they include everything that has not been specifically recorded as belonging to the narrowly defined organized sector of the commoditized economy. By postulating that all those who do not find a regular job in the organized sector are absorbed by the informal economy, it becomes possible to assume away the problems of unemployment and underemployment, as well as to play down the disruptive social consequences of the emergence in industrialized countries of a "two-speed" economy: a highly performing and competitive sector open to a minority, and a residual one for the rest of the population.

The large cities thus prove to be cities for the elite which, at best, function as mechanisms for the regressive redistribution of investments and wealth. The poor end up by paying more dearly than the rich for the basic services, without which life would be impossible. The extreme case is illustrated by cities like Karachi where the inhabitants of poor neighbourhoods have been known to pay itinerant water-bearers 20 times more for their (questionable) water supply than is paid by the inhabitants of the rich neighbourhoods where running water is supplied (Ward 1979).

In contrast to the commoditized economy, household activities are situated both outside the labour and product markets, although household consumption obviously consists of a bundle of goods and services that are both purchased on the market and self-produced.

In addition, the non-market segment of the economy also comprises the social sector, consisting of all collective activities organized outside the market by neighbourhood and community groups, citizen associations, and, in some cases, co-operatives. Their common trait is that they are founded, just like the household sector, on the principle of reciprocity: the donation of an unpaid productive activity, deemed of social interest and matched by free competition of goods and services collectively produced.

A closer look at the real economy of the city (including the multiplicity of interconnected markets, ranging from the legal to the criminal, non-market household activities, and state intervention through to subsidies, rationing, distribution of goods, and provision of services) shows that many of these resources, not accounted for in official statistics, are being intensively used by people to build their homes, produce some food for self-consumption or sale, and transform recycled waste into saleable commodities.

A Bootstrap Operation

What will happen now, in times of crisis? For the bureaucrats from the ministries of planning or finance, the answer is clear: austerity budgets compounded by the requirements of foreign debt servicing mean that the so-called "nonproductive" investments and collective consumption must be cut to the bone.

Whatever the outcome of the debate between the partisans and critics of International Monetary Fund-style policies, one thing is clear. Difficult as it is, the situation is not entirely stalemated so long as there are idle, underutilized, or dilapidated physical and human resources that can be used to produce socially desirable goods and services without violating the prevailing budgetary restrictions. A bootstrap operation would be based on reducing waste in order to increase the resources available for development. It would be aimed at improving living conditions in poor urban areas through grassroots community action without waiting for massive funding from outside. Such an operation has, of course, obvious limitations. It cannot by itself solve the economic crisis and generate enough jobs to reabsorb the backlog of unemployed. Furthermore, under no circumstances should it be used as an excuse for the authorities at local, regional, and national levels to shirk their responsibilities in this field.

On the contrary, grassroots action must be actively supported. Self-reliance does not necessarily mean self-sufficiency any more than an inward-looking development strategy leads to delinking (Sachs 1984). The complexity of the modern world cannot be tackled by decomposing it into an archipelago of self-sufficient communities, be they rural, urban, or rurban. But self-reliance in moral, political, and intellectual terms makes people resourceful and confident: they assume their situation instead of taking a passive approach; looking around them, they end up by identifying resources in their own backyard that can be exploited to bring some relief to their plight.

The FEN message is thus not one of unqualified optimism and romantic idealization of grassroots movements and vernacular technology. Its purpose is to focus on a potential operating margin in a situation otherwise completely deadlocked.

Resource-conserving Cities

Economists tend to look at cities as the site of many enterprises, whose concentration creates both positive and negative externalities but requires a costly infrastructure. Human ecologists have been advocating, without much success to date, the study of cities considered as ecological systems (Boyden 1984). However, most of the studies conducted within the MAB programme on urban systems deal with the impact of cities on the natural environment and its food-producing systems, or describe in detail the energy flows inside the city.

The approach followed by FEN was somewhat different. For analytical purposes, it considered the city as a predominantly artificially created ecosystem with paradigmatic analogies in relation to natural ecosystems. Such a perspective emphasizes the actual and potential interrelations and complementaries between different human activities conducted in the cities (see fig. 4).

Fortunately, in most cities the backlog of untapped opportunities for transforming waste into wealth is very large indeed. A city should thus be regarded as an ecosystem with its own potential of latent, underutilized, misused, or wasted resources.

Fig. 4. Impact diagram of the food-energy nexus in the city (reproduced from Sachs 1986)

Whenever possible, loops must be closed and residues from one production transformed into the inputs for another. The urban ecosystem thus appears as a vast potential of physical and human resources to be identified and used to improve the quality of urban life, especially that of the poor.

The analogy between the urban and the natural ecosystem as resource potentials is valid to the extent to which resources do not exist as such. They are but portions of the environment, natural and urban, that people learn to use for a specific purpose. Knowledge about the environment, or if one prefers, culture, is thus an essential component of the very concept of resources. And resourcefulness, the ingenuity of transforming into resources things around oneself, is an important cultural asset for a more self-reliant development. The issue is not to give up access to any other resource, but to make the best possible use of local opportunities, combining them with the flow of external resources to the extent to which they are forthcoming.

In this respect, waste treatment could play a role by providing additional productive employment and generating inputs into food and energy production as well as self-help construction. Although the margin for energy conservation in third world cities is less than in the more energy-intensive cities of the North, much can still be done with respect to energy consumption in industries and cities. Self-help housing also offers significant potential.

Genuine Participation

Urban ecodevelopment calls for a detailed and concrete knowledge not only of the city's latent resources but of its pressing social needs. Identifying and matching them requires the constant and effective participation of grassroots organizations and citizen movements, because of their daily involvement with the territorial specificity of each neighbourhood. Planning for urban development certainly requires going down to this scale, even though it cannot be performed exclusively at the lowest level of disaggregation.

The meaning of participation must be spelled out because of the frequent abuses of this term. The formal and passive association of community organizations with policies initiated by the authorities constitutes, at best, a pale imitation of what is required and, at worst, a cover for authoritarian regimes. Genuine participation ought to be measured by the power of initiative gained by the community, the room for real-size local experiments, and the degree of symmetry in the relation between the citizens and the different levels of government.

Existing mechanisms for concentration and conflict resolution, the nature of the planning process, and access to the media should also be considered in addition to the capacity of community organizations to find a balance between their roles as critics of the existing order and as proponents of constructive solutions. There is, of course, room for both.

In other words, it is necessary to look at the place for genuine participation provided by the formal interplay of institutions and at the actual unfolding of the political process, both in its party and non-party manifestations. The interaction among the actors of the development process is closely related to the articulation of development spaces - local, regional, national, and international.

Fear is often expressed that insistence on local development may produce a perverse effect in the form of exacerbated parochialism. Such a danger certainly exists, but to refer once again to Morris (1983), the inward orientation of local self-reliance may be compensated for by the outward orientation of modern communication systems. Communication can play a dual role as a positive means of social control over the working of the political and administrative systems and as a tool for horizontal networking of communities interested in exchanging experiences, technologies, and products of culture.

As Finquelievich (1986) observed in the case of Latin America, governments have attempted for several decades to deal with access by the urban poor to food but until recently their measures were strictly institutional and excluded public participation. They consisted primarily of food subsidies, price controls, and food distribution through state-controlled channels. Khouri-Dagher (1987) noted that in Cairo land presumably elsewhere), such programmes could result in considerable waste of resources and could wind up subsidizing the rich more than the poor. For El-Issawy (1985), such shortcomings can be cured by modifying the system.

Since the 1970s, self-production of food, joint purchases, community gardens, and other initiatives have begun to appear, gaining ground and government support in response to worsening economic conditions. These actions helped to improve the living standards of the urban poor by relocalizing food production and strengthening local control, confirming that grassroots organizations can have a far-reaching impact. This is due, in part, to the fact that such groups have "ingenious" projects and also succeed in getting governmental cooperation, especially at the local level (Finquelievich 1986).

The higher degree of success observed at the local level is attributed to the fact that a municipal network is easier to manage and there is greater interaction between local authorities and community organizations. Such cooperation has the advantage, on the one hand, of receiving government support and relying on the efforts of those people that it serves. Because community groups are more in touch with the real needs of local people, projects involving governments, NGOs, and users have been the most effective.

On the other hand, "alternative" projects based only on community support face a number of problems, not the least of which is their reliance on voluntary labour. Unless the initial motivation is extremely high and creates considerable momentum, such initiatives usually do not last. Such was the case of the community kitchens established in Osasco, Brazil, that were designed to reduce nutritional problems by providing communal cooking facilities.

Reporting on these kitchens, Cardoso (1985) noted that alternation between enthusiasm and indifference may occur with such projects because just a few people are always in charge of the work. While the community kitchens that were associated with an active women's group achieved some continuity, those that relied on a hierarchical form of organization had problems getting people to co-operate because of a lack of cohesion.

Kitchens that were introduced through initiatives taken by the municipal government caused problems in communities where people were already organized at the local level. As Finquelievich (1986) observed, the creation of social organizations in which people assume responsibility for themselves and their community is often as important as the solutions that they reach.

Cardoso (1985) concluded that:

It is thus important to avoid simplifying the reasons for the lack of participation by resorting to a vague notion of "welfarism" which, while criticizing the initiative taken by the authorities, leaves the burden of solving the problems of the underprivileged on their own shoulders. It is undoubtedly true that the presence of the State in inducing a participation process raises new questions, but for this very reason it must be carefully observed. In this new context, the challenge is to promote self-management regardless of the private or public origin of the resources involved.

Communication for Urban Self-reliance¹

An analysis of the degree of communication within and between institutions and individuals involved in urban self-reliance revealed that most of the many activities undertaken in this field are generally done in isolation. The GRET/FEN project in this field concluded that such communication can be defined at two different levels: "horizontal" communication at the national or international level between similar groups and "systematic" communication between all actors involved in urban self-reliance.

The needs expressed are not only multiple but are evolving as a result of rapidly changing relationships ranging from repression by the powers that be to collaboration between all actors involved. It was found that most needs were in the field of practices rather than purely technical information. But the production of information on existing practices is complicated by the different contexts, social and cultural backgrounds, language barriers, and different degrees of development of such projects.

For many people, the actual means of communication are a secondary issue when compared to more crucial questions such as: What should be communicated? How should information be screened? Who should information be communicated to? For the time being, it was concluded that most means of communication are poorly adapted to existing situations either because of their cost or incompatibility.

The role of networking, although poorly defined, was identified by most individuals and institutions contacted as a potential answer to communication needs for urban self-reliance. Those involved in networking generally share three points in common:

  1. a willingness to communicate;
  2. common goals; and
  3. a preference for decentralized or horizontal communication.

The activities of such networks can be classified as follows:

  1. exchanges (of information, people, tools, etc.);
  2. joint action;
  3. mutual support;
  4. lobbying; and
  5. common publicity.

The major conclusion reached by the GRET/FEN project was that the vitality and dynamism of a network does not rely on a centralized institution which acts as a secretariat but on the catalytic action of individuals who facilitate connections. These people are able to see what might be useful for another colleague or are able to identify quickly common ground for other members of the network.

In combination with the International Foundation for Development Alternatives/FEN directory (Cordova-Novion and Sachs 1987), such activities contributed to the identification of more than 200 institutions and projects involved in urban self-reliance. Many such innovations are already happening. Information about them should continue to be collected, evaluated, and disseminated as widely as possible, not as models to be followed but rather as stimulation for the social imagination of all those who live in the cities of the third world.

The recent creation of RECEM, a communication network on municipal experiences established by the Fundacao Faria Lima in Sao Paulo, is a welcome step in this direction.² The next stage should consist of involving international organizations, networks of research institutions working on urban problems, and NGOs active in this field, in a common effort to establish a systematic South-South flow of information. Mutual knowledge among third world countries is a precondition for meaningful collaboration and, ultimately, greater collective self-reliance.

Lopsided Modernization

Complex and diverse, urban environments combine elements of natural and entirely artificial environments. They juxtapose modern factories, lavish residential quarters, and suburban expressways with decrepit sweatshops, sprawling slums, and antiquated public transportation. The same city provides an array of environments for different groups, a multiplicity of ecological niches ranging from cozy to uncomfortable, from healthy to filthy, from safe to dangerous, from friendly to hostile. These are multi-layer towns, often with a marked spatial separation - garden cities for the rich, shanties for the poor resulting in what amounts to an apartheid society.

It should be remembered that the urban poor are the main victims of environmental disruption. In addition to living in conditions of squalor subject to the pollution of poverty, they are also the most exposed to the pollution generated by the lavish consumption patterns of the urban elite, including the increasing affluence of the middle class.

The bridge for many is provided by the TV soap operas with their consumerist message: watching them from a shantytown is fairly surrealistic. It forces one to think about the latent explosiveness of the situation in the dual cities of the third world produced by lopsided modernization.

At the bottom of the environmental plight of the urban poor majority lies the imitative growth strategy carried through social inequality and fuelled by the Western modernization model with its attendant features: private consumerism rather than development of collective consumption, primacy of individual careers and lifestyles over social concerns, strong preference for the present with little or no preoccupation for long-term effects, privatization of profits, and collectivization of the costs and risks.

Whatever the judgement one may have of this model in the context of industrial countries, its transposition to less developed countries creates additional distortions: scarce public resources are used to the exclusive benefit of the modernized elites, while the urban majority is deprived of access to basic amenities and decent housing. The urban poor have thus the worst of both worlds and cannot expect much from the caricatural imitations of the Welfare State, too poor to offer effective remedial action.

Even during the heydays of rapid economic growth, most large cities of the third world did not succeed in expanding their infrastructure and basic services, pari passu, with the increase of their population. They are now left, in a period of crisis, with a huge backlog of unattended basic needs, or to use the eloquent Brazilian term, a huge "social deficit". The prospect for the next decade or so is grim indeed. Cities will continue to grow with the influx of "rural refugees" and all those who consider, rightly so, that in spite of the odds, large cities remain the locus of the last hope. They offer, in the words of the 19th century French historian, Jules Michelet, at best, a life lottery³ and at worst, a place where they can expect some panem et circenses.

If the life-lottery analogy is correct, one could expect that metropolitization will advance at an even greater speed than urbanization. People will tend to go to the capitals and large cities because of the illusion that more winning tickets can be found there. When news of an industrial boom spreads through a country, for every new job offered, several newly-arrived candidates apply in addition to those already living in the town. When recessions sweeps a country, moving to the largest city appears as a solution of last resort. So, whatever the ups and downs of the business cycle, migration continues.

Without attempting to resolve the controversy of whether cities are "parasitic" or, on the contrary, "generative" (both cases exist with all sorts of intermediary positions), a severe resource squeeze is inevitable unless bootstrap operations can be devised.

There is considerable temptation to postpone all actions aimed at reducing environmental disruption under the pretext of lack of resources. Business should be continued as usual, meaning by that, savage growth first and remedial action some time later. This is a questionable attitude on ethical, social, and even economic grounds. It begs the question of diachronic solidarity with future generations, assuming implicitly that the plight of the urban poor is a necessary cost of "progress" and ignoring the evidence that preventative measures are almost always more economical in the long run.

Focusing on greater food and energy self-reliance thus offers a starting point to design and gradually implement urban strategies inspired by the ecodevelopment approach. Its possibilities should not, however, be overestimated. Much more is needed to overcome the present crisis, since the urban situation cannot be disassociated from what is going on in the countryside. Part of the urban crisis is due to the stream of immigrants from rural areas, where they are unable to earn even the most miserable living.

The investment required to accommodate them in the cities is far greater than the outlays that would be necessary to provide them with agricultural and related jobs if access to land and other resources were only made possible in rural areas by appropriate institutional measures. An overall development strategy is clearly a precondition to tackle successfully the urban and rural situation.