The Urban South and the Predicament of Global Sustainability

Related GLP Member: Harini Nagendra

Editor's note: The following blog post first appeared on Future Earth's website.

Today’s world is rapidly urbanizing, and nowhere more than in the global south. Spread largely across the southern hemisphere, the global south includes developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, including China and India. These middle and low-income countries face many challenges as their cities have been growing at significantly faster rates than cities in developed countries since the 1970s. Yet these environmental and social challenges in the urban global south are often offered solutions founded on western, or northern, perspectives.

A new Perspective paper in Nature Sustainability, “The urban south and the predicament of global sustainability,” calls for a renewed research focus on urbanization in the global south, highlighting “a critical window of opportunity” for research and transformation. The complexity and uniqueness of urban issues in the global south, according to the authors, means that more scholarship from the south on the south is greatly needed. And with ninety percent of the projected world population growth set to occur in the global south over the next couple of decades, this research will undoubtedly play a large role in shaping the future of urban development.

"The Urban South and the Predicament of Global Sustainability," published in Nature Sustainability on July 16, 2018 will be open access for one month. Xuemei Bai and Harini Nagendra have also authored “Spotlighting the urban south for global sustainability,” a complementary Behind the Paper in Nature Sustainability.

Future Earth connected with authors Nagendra and Bai to discuss the challenges and the opportunities of producing and implementing more research from the global south to its own urban environments.

Kelsey Simpkins: What are the big picture consequences of not addressing growing urbanization in the global south? 

Xuemei Bai: Up to 90 percent of all future world population growth until 2050 will be added into cities of various sizes and definitions, and other urban areas in the global south. The vast majority of the world’s largest cities will also be in the global south. Apart from this sheer magnitude, cities in the global south are typically experiencing more, and more complex, sustainability challenges, all at the same time, and typically with much weaker financial and knowledge capacities. To address these challenges, and harness the unique opportunities, in the global south, we need contextualized, actionable knowledge to guide practice. It is said that the battle for sustainability will be won or lost in cities, but really it would be won or lost in cities in the global south.

Harini Nagendra: The major part of future urbanization will take place in the south – that is where the challenges are, and also – because most of these urban centres are yet to be built and inhabited – the opportunities, to do things differently. We need knowledge – on how to get towards more sustainable urbanization. This knowledge cannot be transplanted from the global north, where the context is completely different – socially, culturally, economically, and in terms of governance as well. Unfortunately, this is just what is happening today. Most “best practices,” knowledge, technology transfers and urban theories of planning are developed in the global north and transplanted to the global south.

KS: What are some examples of how applying urban knowledge from the global north to the global south has caused miscommunications or misapplications in practice?

XB: The smart city is a good example. Some tested and proven practices in the north need to be adapted to the local context before they can be applied to the south (see for example, the challenges in transferring a forest regeneration approach developed in Japan to China).

I would add that scholars in the global south often notice misinterpretations and misunderstanding when interpreting urban issues and their context in developing world in the northern dominant literature. (See for example, “Sustainability: China’s path to ecotopia”). This is in a way inevitable due to the complexity of the issue and the socio-economic context in the global south, and also the fact that some of the work may be influenced by a particular sets of world views and value systems that are different from the context in the global south. These views need to be tested and balanced by the works on the south by the southern researchers.

HN: Smart cities are a good example. Smart cities are built on the idea of pre-existing good quality high tech infrastructure, with widespread access to smart technology. But in cities where basic infrastructure such as sanitary pipes or roads are inadequate, and reliable information on aspects as basic as population censuses is missing, you can’t implement smart city planning. Yet research from my group shows that this is precisely what is being attempted for a number of cities in India – when instead the focus should be on getting the basics in place – clean air, clean water, sewage and sanitation, education, roads etc.

Another example is that of waste to energy plants. Widespread in Europe, they are now being pushed in many countries of the global south. But the composition of waste is very different in many southern cities, for instance containing a much higher load of organic matter. Waste of high calorific value is already picked out for sale by informal waste pickers, and the remaining material cannot be combusted to provide sufficient energy. Safety standards are not easy to enforce in many southern cities, and there are substantial risks of exacerbating air pollution, Yet these tend to be widely touted as “best practice” solutions.  

KS: What do we have to gain by creating more urban knowledge by the global south for the south?

XB: We will gain more context specific knowledge that in turn can inform more tailored policy and practice in the global south. Empirical experience, evidence and practical knowledge gained from the south have the potential to develop into unique conceptual and theoretical framing, but such opportunities are often lost, as papers from the south are often required to confirm and align with the current mainstream discourse which in turn are dominated by the northern scholarship. Conceptual and theoretical contributions from the south are also less recognized, perhaps partly due to the language in which they are published, which is intern linked to the first point above. One example is the urban social-ecological-economic complex system perspective in China developed by Rusong Wang and Shijun Ma in early 1980s. Although these are among the pioneering work that informed today’s urban systems thinking, they are very seldom credited for this important contribution.

HN: We gain in multiple ways. First, urban knowledge is context-specific. We need to generate knowledge on problems and solutions in a diversity of contexts – right now what we have is overwhelmingly dominated by northern contexts, and much of this will not apply in the south. Second, we need knowledge generation in the south, by the south, for southern capacity building. This includes a much greater focus on applied research, but not exclusively so – we also need to understand what new theoretical frames for understanding urbanisation can emerge from southern contexts. Third, the global south is not homogeneous by any means – we also need to encourage a diversity of research within the varied contexts of the global south, to promote south to south knowledge transfer and mentorship – as well as south to north learning transfer and mentorship, which is almost never spoken of in global research or policy arenas.

Southern urban sustainability may follow some principles similar to those of wider southern sustainability initiatives, as I outline in my Nature comment. For instance, many initiatives and innovations are led by women, who are often the most impacted by unsustainable urban living conditions, and impelled to take care of their families. Second, many successful southern movements rely on bottom-up self-organised collective action, especially in the global south context. Third, a strongly youth-skewed demographic means that education and micro entrepreneurship can provide a powerful impetus to urban growth. Fourth, the relatively low levels of consumption, cultural attitudes of thrift, and sacred ties to nature can act as a powerful cultural driver of sustainability, if urban sustainability curricula can build on local principles – instead of teaching almost exclusively from northern textbooks.

KS: What barriers stand in the way of doing this? What groups or people are creating positive change in this arena?

XB: Barriers include our academic institutional arrangements, evaluation and incentive and structure (e.g. overemphasizing single indicator such as citation counts which can be a product of structural bias as we discussed in the paper), conscious and unconscious biases in our academic practices, lack of funding for studies focusing on the urban south, language barriers etc. Some attempts are made to increase the diversity in academia recent years, but mostly focusing on gender issues. Recognizing cultural and geographical diversity, and recognizing research impacts and contributions other than citation count remain a challenge.

HN: Funding represents a big barrier. The research funding accessible to southern researchers is a small fraction of what is available to researchers from the global north. Our results on China reflect some of this. Given the Chinese commitment to funding urban research, some very high quality, well cited Chinese papers have been published on urban sustainability. Language represents another barrier – perhaps more difficult to fix. A lot of good quality research published for example in Portuguese or Spanish by Latin American researchers, or in Chinese or Nepali, will not be easily accessible to northern scholars, or indexed on the Web of Science.

KS: What are the dangers of advancing science-focused administrations or policies over the use and incorporation of local knowledge in the global south?

XB: Policy and practice might be shaped predominantly by knowledge and discourses that are not tailored to the southern context, and therefore could be misled.

HN: Science tends to be a universalised discipline, and science and technology focused policies seek global ideas that can be applied across contexts. But urbanisation, though a process shaped by globalisation, also has significant place-based and contextual components – whether historic, cultural, socio-economic, or related to governance. For instance, many northern academic institutions and think tanks have offered to provide technological advice on how to clean up Bangalore’s polluted lakes. None of these have worked. The problems are not that of a lack of scientific knowledge – but the complex social and institutional contexts that make it difficult to rigorously enforce anti-pollution measures, and the lack of basic sewerage infrastructure in the peripheral parts of the city. Instead, local collective movements by resident groups have been far more successful, because they are context-based.

KS: In your recent Nature comment, “The global south is rich in sustainability lessons that students deserve to hear,” Dr. Nagendra, you make a point that people can be the strength and not the problem. What else can the global north learn from the urban south?

HN: There are number of lessons – but here are a few to begin with. First, the lack of financial and institutional support often means that southern solutions are entrepreneurial and innovative e.g. Curitaba’s bus rapid transit system, which was revolutionary when established, or the booming eco-friendly bamboo bike business in Ghana. Second, collective action and social capital plays a major role in southern contexts – thus population can act as a source of strength, not just a problem. Third, although levels of consumption in southern cities is growing, overall per capita consumption, particularly wasteful consumption, is much less compared to northern cities – a culture of frugality still exists and is locally appreciated in many southern contexts, along with a culture of reverence for nature, often associated with sacred belief systems.

KS: What impact do you hope your paper has for research on urbanization in the global south?

XB: We hope our paper can start a broader debate on these issue. We don’t think the issue will be resolved by one paper or in a short period of time, as many underlying issues are fundamental and challenging to address. But recognizing this as a major issue is an important step.

HN: I hope our paper drives introspection in many arenas and groups on how to rebalance the urban sustainability conversation. We provide several suggestions. Amongst them, I think the most important are that funding agencies and influential research initiatives like Future Earth should examine ways to fund south-led researchers to work on multi-country collaborations. Conferences must ensure that their panels are not north-dominated – too many recent and upcoming “international” sustainable city events are exclusively composed of panellists and plenary speakers from the global north – providing solutions for the rest of the world. We now routinely see male-dominated panels or “manels” being called out – “north-els” can be identified and flagged in the same manner. Journals covering urban sustainability must examine their editorial boards – particularly senior editorship – and revamp them if needed to ensure diversity. Special issues can be developed to focus on southern case studies – and south-developed theoretical frameworks on urban sustainability. International training programmes – almost exclusively north-led – must change track to encourage south-led and south to north idea transfer.

We are not calling for negation of the excellent work that northern scientists have produced on urban sustainability – but a special focus will be needed to level the playing field, and this requires allocation of funding, resources, and sustained investment in the education and mentoring of people – particularly young scholars – from the global south, by the global south.  

Dr. Xuemei Bai is an inaugural Science Committee member of Future Earth, and has been leading the development of its Urban Knowledge Action Network. She is also a professor of Urban Environment and Human Ecology at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University.

Dr. Harini Nagendra is a Scientific Committee Member at the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS), a Global Land Programme (GLP) Fellow, a Future Earth India National Committee Member and a professor in the School of Development at Azim Premji University in Bangalore, India.