My motivation is, what I keep learning ~ from the people, from the cities, from the governments. I don't keep doing this because I have so much to offer ~ I keep doing it because I have so much to learn. ~ Mark Hildebrand, 2 April 2008.
I just returned from a compelling lecture by Mark Hildebrand at U.C Berkeley's Institute of Urban and Regional Development (IURD), in the Global Metro Studies department. Before today, I'd never heard of Mark Hildebrand, but after today his words will ring in my mind every time I get discouraged with my work, which, lately, has been often.
Mark helped establish the Cities Alliance at the World Bank in 1998, and built it into a global coalition of cities and development partners which, in short, works to create 'Cities Without Slums'. More specifically, Mark's mission through the Cities Alliance was to help cities in developing countries cultivate strategic decision-making in managing urban growth ("City Development Strategies"), to realize the positive impacts of urbanization, and to unleash the potential of cities in managing urban growth to reduce poverty ('slum upgrading') as well as prevent the creation of new slums.
Why was I at this lecture, entitled 'Policy Choices and Slums'? How did I get to leave work early to attend this lecture on global issues, you ask? Because the invitation to the lecture pointed out that "slums are not inevitable -- they are the result of failed policies, not poverty. Policies which anticipate urban growth and promote city-wide inclusion strategies can pre-empt environmental degradation and health risks and help nations realize the positive impacts of urban growth." And, while we do not have "slums" per se in Oakland, we do struggle with a serious level of poverty and blight, some of it exacerbated over the years by short-sighted land-use policy decisions (or non-decisions) from previous Administrations. We must also address serious environmental issues, both because of the Port and the impending peak oil collapse. To compound it all, we also face significant population growth: the projected population growth for Alameda County is 18.3% from 1997 to 2010, and 28.2% from 1997 to 2020. Here in Oakland, there is intense debate over zoning, land development, and housing issues on how to best manage density and affordable housing, and how to attract business, and how to serve our current residents. It is a Herculean task.
So, while my job focuses on a tiny corner of the world called Oakland, I often seek out lectures and seminars on global urban development because there is always a parallel in the issues that cities (and local governments) face, whether in California or Cameroon. What I expected most out of this job is that we truly are directly accountable to everyone in Oakland, not just the voters ~ and in turn, I wanted that to mean that I could directly create change, however small, here within our city limits ~ even change inspired by people and programs on the other side of the world. Often, too, I am desperate for innovation, for creative development solutions that seem to only occur in developing countries where red-tape doesn't act as a blindfold over vision nor suffocate community voice. So, I set out to attend a lecture on global poverty, to regain my local focus and inspiration.
According to a 2006 UN-Habitat Report, globally, the slum population is set to grow at the rate of 27 million per year in the period 2000 to 2020. Mark's lecture focused on Sub-Saharan Africa (where he lived for many years), where 72% of the urban population lives in slums; Latin America and Caribbean, with 134 million slum dwellers; and Asia where slum dwellers make up approximately 60% of the world's total slum population.
Mark discussed the lessons learned in implementing the Cities Without Slums goal in various countries, including innovative programs (and some success) in Brazil, Thailand, and Morocco, as well as shortcomings in several cities. Ultimately, Mark wants to unleash the potential of cities, noting that the key challenges should serve as guiding goals:
- Cities need to be transformed into proactive developers of urban infrastructure, rather than passive service providers.
- Cities need to mobilize domestic capital. In Oakland this means creating opportunities for local entrepreneurship, training our work force, and retaining and attracting business.
- We must nurture a well-managed City benefiting the environment.
- We must develop policies predicated on growth.
- We must create a conducive climate for the informal sector.
In other words, Mark said, instead of debating the contribution of cities to development, more energy needs to be spent on unblocking it. (I wish he would come say this at Open Forum at one of our City Council meetings.) Overall, Mark stressed the importance of capacity building and coherence at the local government level, and the need to create community building strategies, not just housing strategies. Mark knows this ~ in addition to the countless cities he has assisted in developing countries, he also built 360 classrooms in rural Chad. That fact is the one he said with the most pride.
After the lecture, I spoke briefly with Mark, about the parallels between the global issues he addresses in his work and the local issues we face here in Oakland. I asked him, if he had one element of his model to impress upon our local leaders, what would it be? He answered simply, "It's about the community, and vision ~ the community vision."
Somehow I overcame my awe of this man and continued speaking with him, eventually asking him how he started in this amazing line of work ~ of life. He said he is actually an Architect and, decades ago, he tried for about two years to work on this type of urban development. He said that through a friend he snagged an interview for a job in Tanzania. It was clear the interviewer was not interested in hiring Mark and so he continued his job search. A year or so later, a house Mark built was featured in a magazine. The man who had interviewed him saw the article and called Mark ~ and hired him. The rest, as they say, is history. "It's about luck," he said.
After that, I introduced myself to the Professor, thanking him for allowing me to barge into his class. It turns out the lecture I was invited to was actually the regular class of about 10 students ~ I felt like an interloper, bringing local concerns to a class about global issues. But it turns out the class is conducting a study project on People's Grocery, which is in West Oakland. The Professor said he'd like to invite me back to the class to discuss local issues ~ and maybe even to give a presentation. After Mark's lecture, I was humbled and honored (amazed) the Professor even considered me.
And so I left, inspired, motivated, and hoping I can make my way into some kind of luck ~