Ethical Cities Are the Future

2015•05•28 Brendan F.D. Barrett Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

The Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace, was the seat of the government of Venice for centuries. As well as being the home of the Doge (the elected ruler of Venice) it was the venue for its law courts, its civil administration and bureaucracy. This, one of the palace’s many statues, shows the Doge kneeling before the symbol of Venice, the Lion of St. Mark. The open book symbolizes the state’s sovereignty.

In the Doge’s Palace in Venice, outside of the entrance to the Chamber of the Great Council, hangs a work of art entitled “The Last Judgment” that was painted by Palma Giovane in 1595.

As they waited in the Sala dello Scrutinio (voting hall), the two thousand or more patricians that made up the Great Council, representing the most illustrious Venetian families, had time to ponder the meaning of this painting.

The message is very powerful — you will be judged in this life for everything you do, so enter the chamber with this thought uppermost in your mind, and act accordingly and in good faith.

Now, I am not a religious person but there is another message that I read here: a reminder to the Great Council members that if they behave in a righteous manner then the city of Venice will fare well.

This ethical sense, perhaps sharpened by the influence of the time’s spirituality, may partly explain the success of this spectacular and influential city throughout the ages, and its ability to retain the status of an independent republic up to 1797 while many other cities were swallowed up by nation states much earlier.

The entirety of the Doge’s Palace is an art gallery with classical paintings adorning every available space. While these paintings are creative masterpieces, they are at the same time a historical guide to the city and a visual code of ethics.

Please don’t misconstrue my intentions here. I am not holding up the Venetians as paragons of virtue, but simply drawing lessons from their astounding achievements in creating one of the wonders of the world and in communicating their legacy so effectively that even the modern visitor is in awe.

The great cities of today

Our collective urban history is one of fantastic progress in the face of immense challenges. The great cities of today stand as a testament to human ingenuity and technological innovation.

Yet, in our increasingly urbanised world, contemporary civic leaders face a complex array of problems such as high unemployment, income inequalities, crime, homelessness, lack of access to affordable housing, slums, failing infrastructure, congested streets, uncontrollable urban sprawl and an ever-tightening public purse.

This is not just the case in the mega-cities like New York, London, Beijing and New Delhi, but also in the numerous secondary cities that must try to keep pace with rapid population growth and economic development.

All cities, whether growing or contracting, have to plan for a perplexing future with uncertainty around global issues such as climate change, the associated need to shift away from fossil fuel dependency, the challenge of ensuring food security and the changing patterns of economic trade.

It will be ever more important to explore the ethical dimensions of the multifaceted decisions our cities make in terms of values, perceptions and practices about what is morally right and good with respect to their future direction.

When national leadership is failing us and international negotiations on these vitally important issues seem to drag on endlessly, it is down to our local leaders to pick up the slack and to work out solutions on the ground to these complex issues in partnership with their fellow citizens. It is a new reality that was succinctly expounded in Benjamin Barbers 2013 book entitled If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities.

When responding to today’s concerns and making plans for the future, it is essential that both our local leaders and the individual citizens continue to question the values that underpin the goals and objectives being put forward.

It is clear that, in the face of uncertainties, we need both a moral compass and an ethical gyroscope to guide our civic decision-making. As we move forward from here, it will be ever more important to explore the ethical dimensions of the multifaceted decisions our cities make in terms of values, perceptions and practices about what is morally right and good with respect to their future direction.

Comprehending the ongoing transition

It is quite evident that cities around the world cannot stick to “business as usual”.

The future is one of carbon constraint since we know just how much greenhouse gases we can emit before our emissions push temperatures past a dangerous threshold, creating inhospitable climates and extreme weather events, among other problems. We also know that urban areas account for 67% percent of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, which is expected to rise to 74% by 2030.

Cities will also be impacted by climate change with approximately 360 million urban residents living in coastal areas less than 10 metres above sea level and therefore vulnerable to storm surges and flooding.

To navigate through this new terrain, it will be necessary for cities to renounce the traditional model and embrace alternative development pathways and new forms of economic growth, or the notion of prosperity without growth, or even degrowth. This is a pretty drastic departure for business as usual and includes the search for a clean, non-fossil fuel, renewable energy supply system and a green, clean transportation system to meet our urban needs.

Rather than seeking to foster and manage endless growth, the viewpoint should be one of redefining civic prosperity in an age of constraint, efficiency and effective resource use.

Now I know that sounds like a heretical statement that you would expect from some radical fringe activist group but even the International Monetary Fund in a recent study has argued that lower potential growth is the new reality facing the post global financial crisis world.

As Federico Demaria pointed out, this new economic landscape provides us with an opportunity to push for change that moves us away from a global system that is currently predatory, unjust and unsustainable and ushers in one that focuses on social justice, well-being and ecological sustainability.

It is in our cities where this transition is being both contested and determined. Demaria argues that our political efforts should focus less on growth at all costs but more on questions of equity, redistribution and real democracy.

These are not new ideas and were captured, for example, in Susan Fainstein’s 2011 book on The Just City.  Fainstein pragmatically calls on urban policymakers to assure greater justice in both the formulation and effects of their programmes to ensure a better quality of urban life within the “global capitalist political economy”.

melbourne bikes

The goals of the Future Melbourne plan include being a prosperous city that is a safe and vibrant place to live, as well as for Melbourne to become a zero net greenhouse emissions city. Photo: Ravi Ahuja. Creative Commons BY-NC (cropped).

While this makes perfect sense, it does at the same time lock us into the status quo where the current form of globalized economy is in direct conflict with the future of the climate (unless the former can be quickly transformed somehow). But it goes beyond environmental concerns because other side effects of globalization include urban slums, unemployment, poverty and pollution. They are the unacceptable side of the current development paradigm.

If on reflection we conclude that we are in transition to a post-capitalist low-carbon economy, then it is crucial that we plan for this at all levels, rather than live in denial.

This means that we should start by recognizing that the local government plans being compiled today ought to have a fundamentally different focus to those we would have produced 10 or 20 years ago. Rather than seeking to foster and manage endless growth, the viewpoint should be one of redefining civic prosperity in an age of constraint, efficiency and effective resource use.

This is a focus that we can already find in some city plans. Take the Future Melbourne plan, the goals of which include being a prosperous city that is a safe and vibrant place to live. Another goal is for Melbourne to become a zero net greenhouse emissions city. These are indications of a city moving in the right direction. It is a goal Melbourne shares with the City of Oslo for example, with the latter aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.

Four ethical dimensions

Local politicians and policymakers understand the importance of ethics in their work and go into public service to ultimately do good. This explains why in many cities around the world there are codes of ethics, commissions to monitor ethical behaviour and other mechanisms in place designed to make local governments more ethical.

The aim is to promote good urban governance, transparency and accountability while weeding out corruption, conflicts of interest and the abuse of power. These measures are essential in maintaining public trust and fairness in local government action. This is the first dimension of the ethical city. It is something that is captured in the work of the Global Compact Cities Programme  where over 100 cities have signed up to ten global compact principles on human and labour rights, environmental sustainability and anti-corruption.

The second dimension relates to how various complex issues are understood by urban communities with reference to what makes a sustainable, healthy, resilient, safe, liveable, economically vibrant and inclusive city. Again, we have examples of cities coming together to work on these issues through major international collaborations such as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), through the C40 initiative and the 100 Resilient Cities campaign funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Oslo

The City of Oslo has implemented an initiative to monitor the ethical standards in its supply chain, sending a clear signal to suppliers that the municipality is committed to ethical and social responsibilities. Photo: Agnar Kaarbø. Creative Commons BY-NC (cropped).

A third ethical cities dimension relates to the conditions that are created within the city so that it supports an ethical stance from the businesses located therein. We have all perhaps heard of the term “The Ethical Corporation” and see it as a logical extension of corporate social responsibility, but we tend to associate this with multi-national corporations. You only have to take a look at Forbes magazine to confirm this viewpoint. There is also, however, a spreading movement to certify businesses that desire to be Benefit Corporations (B Corps), the purpose of which includes creating public benefit. Directors and officers run a B Corp business in the same way as a traditional corporation but are required to consider how their decisions can allow the company to provide social or environmental benefits on top of showing a healthy bottom line.

Cities can use their power to promote ethical business practices within their boundaries so that the local economy can flourish within a framework of the common or greater good. For example, the City of Oslo has implemented an initiative to monitor the ethical standards in its supply chain, sending a clear signal to suppliers that the municipality is committed to ethical and social responsibilities.

Finally, perhaps the most important dimension is the role of the individual citizen and their civic duties and responsibilities. In the past, in great cities of the world like Venice, to be a citizen meant being engaged. Clearly, the past male-dominated models (to be a Venetian patrician you had to male, over 20 and from the right kind of family) are not the ideal form of civic participation for today and rather we seek engaged and empowered participation regardless of gender, race, religion or ethnicity.

In our busy relentless world of endless distractions and demands on attention, it is challenging for citizens to remain connected with the development of the city around them. But this is happening at a time when such commitment is paramount.

No time for utopian or dystopian cities

Many of our visions of the future city are dystopian. A good example is Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner set in Los Angeles in 2019, where human control of the environment is all encompassing and the city is void of natural life. It is a vision that, while fascinating, is also abhorrent to most people and ought to remain in the realms of science fiction.

Moreover, the list of failed utopian cities is long and it is clear that we prefer to live in the imperfect city of outstanding character, with recognizable flaws and fantastic opportunities.

We expect a lot from our cities. While at times we may feel unsafe on the streets, most of us do not want to live in gated communities that protect the affluent from those who are less economically fortunate. That is the image of a dysfunctional city.

But there are those who present the future of the city in a positive light, even when tackling complex problems. David Holmgren, for example, in his 2009 book Future Scenarios, envisages a world where “city governments responsible for providing services are able to lead much of the restructuring to more compact cities and towns with increasing public-transportation infrastructure.”

The goal is not to aim for some sort of unified ethical framework that we all have to subscribe to, but rather to elaborate and explore the value systems underpinning this transition to a low-carbon world in a culturally sensitive, diversity respecting manner.

However, achieving this transformation will require a fundamental re-think by all concerned and ethical questions ought to be at the centre of this process. The goal is not to aim for some sort of unified ethical framework that we all have to subscribe to, but rather to elaborate and explore the value systems underpinning this transition to a low-carbon world in a culturally sensitive, diversity respecting manner so as to ensure we can bring the best of civilization with us on this journey.

This is the least that our forebears in the greatest cities of the world would expect from us. It is what future generations deserve. This may be the ultimate test of what sustainability is all about.

For now, we can enjoy reading the rankings of the most liveable city (Vienna), the greenest city (Copenhagen in Europe, Curitiba in Latin America, Singapore in Asia, San Francisco in North America, and Cape Town in Africa) or the smartest city (Barcelona). These rankings are indicative of the fact that a transition is well underway. But what I would like to see is a ranking of the world’s most ethical cities. I suspect that it is these cities that will get the transition right and come out the other side even better places to live.

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Author

Brendan F.D. Barrett

Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a senior lecturer in Sustainability and Urban Planning at RMIT University. His professional career includes work in the private sector, academia and with international organizations. He uses the web and information technologies as a means to communicate, teach and undertake research on issues of environment and human security. Prior to joining RMIT he worked in the United Nations for close to 20 years with UNEP and the UN University (UNU). He is a visiting researcher at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability in Tokyo, Japan, and a visiting associate professor at the University of Tokyo.

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