The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is marked by the consolidation of sustainability as a key guiding principle and an emphasis on cities as a potential solution to global development problems. However, in the absence of an agreement on how to implement sustainable development in cities, a set of urban policy solutions and ‘best practices’ became the vehicles through which the sustainable development agenda is spreading worldwide. This article shows that the rapid circulation of Bogotá as a model of sustainable transport since the 2000s reflects an increasing focus of the international development apparatus on urban policy solutions as an arena to achieve global development impacts, what I call the ‘leveraging cities’ logic in this article. This logic emerges at a particular historical conjuncture characterised by: (1) the rising power of global philanthropy to set development agendas; (2) the generalisation of solutionism as a strategy of action among development and philanthropic organisations; and (3) the increasing attention on cities as solutions for global development problems, particularly around sustainability and climate change. By connecting urban policy mobilities debates with development studies this article seeks to unpack the emergence, and the limits, of ‘leveraging cities’ as a proliferating global development practice. These urban policy solutions are far from being a clear framework of action. Rather, their circulation becomes a ‘quick fix’ to frame the problem of sustainable development given the unwillingness of development and philanthropic organisations to intervene in the structural factors and multiple scales that produce environmental degradation and climate change.
Montero, S. (2019). Leveraging Bogotá: Sustainable development, global philanthropy and the rise of urban solutionism. Urban Studies, 0042098018798555.
Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Development at Universidad de Los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia
The interview transcript
Sergio thank you for accepting an invitation to have a coffee break with me, how are you doing? Hi I’m doing very well, thank you, I’m having today as usual Colombian black coffee, which coffee are you having?
I’m having Colombian coffee as well of course, it’s a coffee from Nariño, a region in Colombia.
That’s great to know, I love that coffee too. Sergio your paper is about how knowledge rises between cities and in the particular case of Bogotá, could you please tell me what the paper was about?
Yes, this is a paper about how in the global development world, cities are becoming more and more important and the circulation of policy knowledge between cities and particularly between south-south cities is becoming more important, and so that could be like a great news for cities, but it also has some problems, and what I do in this article is I try to understand why we have reached this paradigm of looking at cities as potential solution to development, but also what are the problems with that.
And if I understand correctly the key notion of your paper is urban solutionism, could you please give us a definition of it?
Yes, so cities in particular in issues of sustainability and climate change cities have been perceived as problems problems to sustainability, the causes of of climate change and what we’re seeing in recent years is a sort of like a change in paradigm in which we’re looking at cities as potential solutions to this kind of
problems, uh you know if cities do more sustainability policies in terms of transport, in terms of public space in terms of housing so urban planning has become a potential solution for global development problems but this has also become, this has also made development organizations and philanthropic organizations very optimistic about the possibilities of cities and so that’s what I call urban solutionism, the idea that just by exchanging best practices and policy knowledge and we can solve global development problems, this is uh I think is a great beginning but we can also be should be a little bit cautious about what this means.
And based on these notions, which ones will you say are the key findings of your paper?
The key findings of this paper I would say is that we’ve seen an increase in cities or or policy knowledge from cities of the south circulating around the globe so normally or traditionally the circulation of policy knowledge was north to south right so urban planning policies the big cities of Europe and North America were the models that cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America were following, what we see in recent decades is the emergence of cities of the south as alternative models for urban planning, that is a very interesting development itself but what I’ve seen in this paper, doing research for this paper is that this south-south traffic of policy knowledge is often orchestrated by institutions or organizations based in the north, particularly development organizations so particularly you know the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, but also philanthropy. Philanthropy has become a very important actor in producing and circulating urban policy knowledge, so Bloomberg philanthropies in particular but also Hewlett foundation, many foundations are now interested in cities or influencing what cities do in order to solve global development problems.
That’s very interesting to know thank you for clarifying it, and what was your main motivation or your personal driver to write this paper?
I was interested in this research because this was part of a bigger project that was trying to understand how and why Bogotá has become a model for transport planning for many cities there are there are about 500 cities around the world that have replicated us bus transit system transmilenio and also its bicycle policies so when i so i was very interested in trying to understand how did this happen how is it possible that now we have I don’t know Cape Town or Bangkok or San Francisco in the U.S referencing Bogotá to do changes in their urban transport system, so what does it mean this sort of like reversed of the way in which urban policy knowledge traveled from north to south to south-south and even south-north so what I really, after doing research about this topic what I quickly realized is that the international development apparatus was behind the production and circulation of Bogotá as a model and so that also means that the circulation of Bogotá or the as a model is also trying to fulfill a bigger sort of like paradigm shift in the way that development the international development or system works and so I was very interested in you know that’s what sort of my motivation how I arrived to the topic.
Thank you for sharing, that’s very interesting to know and finally I want to know which ones will you say are the key policy implications of your research?
I think that the key policy implications of this paper is that we have now a lot of knowledge about best practices, so a lot of knowledge about what other cities are doing so now every time we want to do something now, majors and planners, the first thing they do when they come to office is that okay we need to solve this what are other cities doing about this, and this is great but at the same time it’s dangerous that we end up just replicating what other cities do because what worked in another city might not work in your city, even if you are you know a Latin American city or even you know that you each city has its
problems and we need to understand the problems, we need to ask questions about why is this not working, why transport is not working, why housing is not working in our city and probably there are some common reasons that many cities share but there’s also probably very local uh reasons why this is happening so what I would say is that yes having best practices is great but we need to be cautious that we need to be, we need to understand the question that what the problem is before giving the solution that’s why the emphasis on this paper on the on a critique of this idea of urban solutionism it’s good to have solutions but we cannot uh sort of like become a solutionist, you know just taking one solution from one city and apply we need to understand the problem in our city we need to talk to the civil society and people in our city to understand what the problem is and what the implications are and I think that is one of the main implications of the paper for policy.
Tags: Bogotá, global philanthropy, sustainable urban development, sustainable urban transport, urban policy
Sergio those were all my questions, thank you very much for having the time to chat with me it was a pleasure for me to have you here in coffee break and hope to see you soon
Bye-bye, thank you thank you for watching