Sylvia Borren

Greening the City
The need, and failure, to put children first, everywhere

The past two decades have seen an upsurge in initiatives that promote making cities ‘greener’. Municipalities around the world have implemented recycling laws and air-quality regulations, and urban residents regularly take part in environmentally friendly activities such as planting trees and collecting garbage. Some have begun to reduce energy usage while starting to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy drawn from the sun, wind, tides or heat beneath Earth’s surface. Such efforts should be commended, but they are only a part of what it takes to build sustainable cities.

A sustainable city is also one that cares for its poorest and most marginalized citizens and considers the impact of its actions on those whose voices may not be loud enough to register in campaigns and other public forums. It is one that recognizes that actions taken within its municipal boundaries can affect people on the other side of the world, and that cares about the ‘bottom billion’ of our sisters and brothers who live in impoverished countries.

The emergency in the Horn of Africa, which began to command international attention last year, provides a dramatic illustration of the downside of our interconnectedness: Human-induced climate change plays an undeniable role in the tragedy. Growth in carbon emissions is closely related to growth in Gross Domestic Product, and high- and middle-income countries rank among the biggest polluters. When the relationship between pollution and wealth is examined on a per capita basis, it is clear that wealthier countries pollute more – but, unfairly, the effects are often most detrimental in developing countries. The collision of drought, conflict and dislocation in the Horn of Africa may be an extreme instance, but people have been moving from rural to urban areas because of unpredictable weather, crop failure or slow famine in Africa, Asia and Latin America. When they arrive in towns and cities, poor rural migrants – and in particular migrant women and their children – are often forced to take the lowest paid, most dangerous jobs and to live in conditions no one should have to endure.

I have visited some of the world’s most dire slums and witnessed the poverty, desperation and appalling living conditions that confront children there. Their mothers will endure exploitation and violence to help the family survive, but even then these children’s lives are threatened by open drains, dirty water, contaminated food, and the diarrhoea, malaria and other preventable diseases that accompany them. Climate change exacerbates these horrors: Poorly built slum dwellings are no match for increasingly intense rains, storms and heat waves.

But these children are also threatened daily by the irresponsible and unsustainable behaviour of affluent outsiders. A 2008 Greenpeace report documented the prohibited dumping in Accra, Ghana, of used electronic products such as computers, monitors, TVs and mobile phones from Europe and the United States. Such e-waste is laden with toxins linked to cancer and other health problems, yet in Ghana it was picked apart by children, most of them boys and many as young as 5 years old, who used stones and their bare hands to remove valuable metals and minerals. This is part of a vicious cycle in which the extraction of substances, including coltan and copper, has fuelled armed conflict and systematic rape in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo – only to end up menacing children in another part of Africa.

As these examples suggest, ‘sustainability’ applies not only to how we humans treat our immediate surroundings, but also to how green and fair our economies are. An inclusive, sustainable society features not only energy efficiency but also fair production and fair trade – a way of life that attaches the utmost importance to the rights and futures of girls and boys everywhere. I strongly believe that if these children were given at least half the chance they deserve – if the promises of the Millennium Development Goals and human rights instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child were realized – then they would grow up to be the generation that solved the problems of slum life. We in the international community and global civil society have the means – through communication, education, finance and technology – to make this happen. That it hasn’t yet suggests that the real problem here is one of political will, and that this is yet another instance in which the actions, or inaction, of the privileged have a negative effect on those already most deprived.

Sylvia Borren is the director of Greenpeace Netherlands, co-chair of Global Call to Action against Poverty and co-chair of Worldconnectors. Her career began in 1975 in Haarlem, Netherlands, where she supported primary schools serving children from migrant backgrounds.

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