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A couple of weeks ago I attended the First International Meeting on Sustainable Urban Development organized by the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz.

An international conference with over 400 attendees (which much of the cream of Basque urban planners), more than 25 top level speakers coming from almost every corner of the world (Saskia Sassen -Dutch urban sociologist based in Columbia University-, Joan Subirats -Catalan political scientist and director of the Institute of Government and Public Policy at the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona-, ​​Daniel Innerarity - philosopher and Spanish National Essay Award, Sergio Fajardo -former Mayor of Medellin and perhaps future governor of Antioquia-, Jose Maria Ezquiaga -architect and professor at the School of Architecture at the UPM-, Salvador Rueda -Director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona-, ​​Mohsen Mostafavi -Dean and professor of design at Harvard of Iranian origin-, Jeb Brugmann -Canadian urban consultant and one of the creators of the Agenda 21-, Jeremy Rifkin -consultant to many North American and Western governments-, etc.) and focused on the present and the future of cities (although this issue was lead, in fact, the future of humanity), "obviously" attracted almost no interest from the three reigning powers in Spain / Euskadi today. I might not seen them, but I felt that there was neither a relevant financier nor a relevant politician nor a relevant journalist attending to the workshop. Not even a trace of bankers. Politicians had some minor operations early in each of the three sessions, met the media behind the scenes and off we go. And journalists, once collected interviews with notable politicians and academics, idem.

Despite having received a rather limited media coverage (and fundamentally in Alava), I think it was one of the most important events in Euskadi conference on cities in many years.

I share with you some of the impressions I left the conference and its participants:

  • Urbanism is not all about land use (including housing), but about people and public space.
  • The cities in particular and human development in general must immediately assume the concept LIMITS. There are all kinds, but the ecological and social limits should play a role in the coming decades radically different to that played in the past.
  • Cities that do not take care for their social cohesion in a context of increasing diversity will degrade severely.
  • Cities should mimic the behavior of nature (balanced urban metabolism and search for PHYSICAL and ENERGTIC EFFICIENCY).
  • Urban self-sufficiency (not to be confused with autarchy) will play a key role in the coming decades. Cities that can produce energy and food, water, etc in proximity, manage their own waste (starting by minimizing it), to reduce the logistical dependencies, to be effective and efficient in the fields of transport and mobility may overcome the imminent collapse of our current energy-economic system (deregulated capitalism - cheap fossil fuels).
  • Mimetic repetition of the same urban elements within the cities (which resemble supermarket shelves where identical products are thrown) follow a financial logic and does not take into account either the geographical location nor the needs of citizens.
  • We are at the time of the reuse of existing urban fabric and must abandon the obsession with growth.
  • The urban fabric must be multifunctional (to maximize its social and economic uses and minimize environmental impacts).
  • Cities should be able to attract the scarcest resource and production: talent.
  • The rural-urban dichotomy, cement and nature, urban and rural ... should begin to break through the incorporation of nature in the city itself.
  • The governance of the city must change, to begin with a rapid run away from sclerotic bureaucracy.
  • State and market will continue to playing important roles, but local communities should be aware of their force and talk with the other two poles on an equal footing, in order to build cities where cooperative, non profit, bur profesionalized urban neighborhoods must play an important role in serving the interests of the community.
  • We are a zombie civilization walking towards the total ecological and social disaster.
  • Technology (renewable energy, hydrogen, internet, nanotechnology, biotechnology, etc) will help in the future, but will not allow us to maintain our current Western lifestyle in the coming years (neither us Westerns nor the rest od the world).
  • To decrease is not only a possibility, but it may be the only way to live better in the future (measuring development, not in terms of mere GDP, but through another set of indicators).
  • Enthusiasm (when it is generated, fed and maintained collectively, through trust, transparency, participation and dignity) is a powerful social force, as shows by what has been done by Sergio Fajardo and his team in Medellin-Colombia.

These are just some of the many things we discussed. I think all the speakers launched a serious alarm and called for a new paradigm in urban development, not only on ethical grounds, but for physical, chemical, social and economic non-ignorable reasons.

I believe that new methodologies and praxis suggested by the speakers and other congress participants could allow cities to manage in a more respectful way towards nature and human needs.

Forgive me the sin of chauvinism, but the congress showed that the situation in these matters is better in Euskadi than in the average for Spain and that Alava is in better urban shape than the rest of Euskadi.

The pity is that the financiers who have to finance, the politicians who have to govern and journalists who have to help to change the collective imagination were not there, as busy as they were with what may be the last agonies of the current urban, social and economic model of development.

Anyway, I think many of the attendees we loaded ourselves with technical and intellectual ammunition for a new era, in theory still distant in time, but more imminent that we think.



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