How cities are seizing the moment to focus on climate and equity

There’s evidence that the pandemic is speeding economic conversions toward the goals of "green deals". (VCG via Getty Images)

Around the globe, in spheres of government, business, and civil society, a burgeoning consensus affirms that societal recovery from impacts of the coronavirus must occur in ways that are pro-environment and pro-equity.

A newly released report from the C40 Cities network aims to point out specific examples of this kind of recovery taking place, encouraging mayors to learn from each other as they implement policies that address residents’ short- and long-term needs while the pandemic continues. The group says solutions are available that also address two of humanity’s older, but no less urgent, crises: those of climate change, and of people’s inequitable access to the resources needed for a decent standard of life. Cities are a natural place to focus efforts, because they are home to more than half the world’s population, 90% of reported coronavirus cases, and “are where the future happens first,” according to the report.

“To build the future we want, the process of recovery must bring about meaningful change in the way we think about our societies and our economies. We must forge a new normal,” reads the “Mayors Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery”, published by C40’s Global Mayors Covid-19 Recovery Task Force. “A return to ‘business as usual’ would not just be a monumental failure of imagination, but lock in the inequities laid bare by the pandemic and the inevitability of more devastating crises due to climate breakdown.” The task force is chaired by Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala, and its recovery principles have been endorsed by over 40 mayors, representing cities on every continent.

By highlighting new, post-Covid governing practices in areas from mass transit to job creation to feeding the hungry, the task force hopes to demonstrate broad-based urban action against the backdrop of widespread calls to “build back better”. Whether it’s the United Nations asserting on Earth Day that “fiscal firepower must drive a shift from the grey to green economy”, or the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance writing an open letter to global financial leaders saying the same, or the rising profile of doughnut economics and the degrowth movement, the drive for a “green and just recovery” appears to have become conventional wisdom in many circles. The environmentalist and former US Vice President Al Gore, who chairs a $20 billion investment firm, now says that the “sustainability revolution” is “the biggest investing opportunity in the history of the world, and the biggest business opportunity in the history of the world.”

Just a year and a half after Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the concept of a “Green New Deal” in the US – meeting both scorn and acclaim – “green deals” are found all over. In April of 2019, both New York and Los Angeles unveiled their own Green New Deals. In December, before the pandemic, a continent-wide European Green Deal was announced. This June, Seoul made its version public. And there’s evidence that the pandemic is speeding the economic conversions these plans envision. (There’s also plenty of evidence that among the untold billions being spent on recovery are massive grants to fossil fuel industries, in the UK the US, and elsewhere.)

Former mayor of Toronto David Miller thinks mayor-led actions can and must gain momentum. “The cities represented in the task force, and C40 Cities generally, have taken real action against greenhouse gas emissions that has proven effective, and a way to address inequality and create jobs. What the world needs is to take these excellent examples and do more, quickly,” says Miller, C40’s director of international diplomacy. “The actions of C40 mayors to reduce emissions, through actions to clean electricity generation, lower emissions from buildings, clean transportation and waste management, show what is possible and have resulted in real emission reductions. Last year in Copenhagen, 34 cities announced their emissions had peaked. They have showed what is possible, and this should give hope.”

Leaders in New Orleans, Louisiana, share that drive. The city, located alongside the Mississippi River delta and the Gulf of Mexico, is one of the places in the world that is most quickly losing land into the water. Mayor LaToya Cantrell is a member of the Covid-19 Recovery Task Force, heading the committee focused on equity. While tourism dollars and jobs have been essential to the local economy, the recent tourism drought is driving the city to act on its pre-existing Climate Action Equity Report and create more green jobs, aimed at decarbonizing infrastructure, and blue jobs, which have to do with water management.

“We’ve been looking at ways we can really turbocharge these programs and inject more cash, more infrastructure, more trainees – to create essentially a Civilian Conservation Corps that is part of the post-Covid labor force,” says Camille Pollan, project director in the city’s Office of Resilience and Sustainability. It’s not yet clear whether any of the estimated $6 trillion in US federal stimulus money allocated thus far can be used toward such projects, says Pollan, so state and philanthropic funding is also being sought.

A place of unique vitality, New Orleans is also a place of inequality, which has been highlighted by the coronavirus’s impact. According to 2018 figures from the American Community Survey, the city’s population of 389,648 is 59% Black and 31% white, but today Black people account for 75% of the city’s deaths from the coronavirus, and white people 22%.

“Covid was really an opportunity to reexamine” the goals of the equity report, says Pollan, “and to say, these are really relevant to the inequities we’re trying to address.” When data began showing that Covid was disproportionately affecting Black and low-income residents, those with less health insurance, and respiratory issues, she says, “in some ways it was not surprising, but also a wakeup call that all these underlying issues need to be addressed.”

“We have one opportunity to get this right. We have the possibility to help all residents, versus just going back to business pre-Covid,” Pollan says. “We can seize the moment to develop transformational change.

“We know what we have to do to slow, stop, or reverse global warming. The economic engines can be moved to support that effort today, but not five years from now,” she says.

Karen Loew is a writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @karenloew.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.