Planting the Seeds of Sustainability

Planting the Seeds of Sustainability

Global sustainability is a term that is thrown about quite a bit these days. The idea of creating greater and more efficient methods of energy consumption, waste management, water conservation, pollution control, and more are at the forefront of today’s international research. While an overarching focus on these goals is certainly admirable, it would seem that sustainability on a smaller scale just might be the key to seeing a broader change. At least that’s the hope of Stephen Goldsmith, Director of The Center for the Living City and Associate Professor of the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah.

Goldsmith, along with 12 students from the College of Architecture and Planning, was given the opportunity to visit Curitiba, Brazil this year as part of the university’s Study Abroad program. The trip, which lasted for 10 days, gave Goldsmith and his students the opportunity to see one of the world’s most successfully sustainable cities in action, as well as the chance to speak with those who helped to create the programs that keep the city running so smoothly.

This trip marks the second year that Goldsmith has been able to take students on a tour of Curitiba, a city famous for its innovations in transportation, waste management, and sustainable urban development. Not only did it provide students the opportunity to see these revolutionary sustainable metropolitan programs, but also to meet some of the great minds behind them including the leadership of Curitiba housing program Companhia de Habitação Popular de Curitiba (COHAB), as well as La Urbanización de Curitiba (URBS), the revolutionary transit system pioneered by former Mayor of Curitiba, Jaime Lerner.

Throughout the trip, COHABAR and URBS provided transport in for students to tour some of the most difficult to develop areas of the city and gave presentations with experts available for questioning.

While many of the sustainability programs within Curitiba started out small, most have made significant and lasting changes within the community, something that Goldsmith attributes to the creative and bold styling of Jaime Lerner’s leadership during his time as Mayor of Curitiba.

“Jaime as a mayor and governor believed that we should not allow bureaucracy to get in our way,” Goldsmith said. “Think about the idea of a mayor saying I want to make sure that I avoid my own bureaucracy, both one’s personal bureaucracy as well as the bureaucracy of the institution that one runs. He feels that it’s very important to just make a proposal and then get out there and try it.”

Lerner is particularly well known for his innovative take on public transportation, something that not only put Curitiba on the global map of sustainability but which has since spread and been re-applied in 167 cities across the world.

Goldsmith emphasized that, while analyzing programs for city infrastructure has its place, it isn’t everything. Implementation of these programs, even on just a test scale, to begin with, is where significant change really begins.

“One of the key reasons for [Lerner’s] success has been his willingness to act boldly, to make sure that one is doing no harm, and to make sure that the people involved in the transitional process understand these (programs) are low risk, but with a very high probability of success. I think it’s about being creative, not being risk-averse, and using the genius of one’s common sense in many places to guide visions for change. That model of creativity, especially in a time when our students will be addressing similar types of issues, is one that I wanted them to see on the ground.”

Beyond the opportunity to speak with leaders in sustainable metropolitan development, Goldsmith spoke in great detail about the chance they had to witness these sustainable practices put into direct practice.

Goldsmith shared a particularly impactful experience he and his students had on the trip to Curitiba when they were led to an exceedingly underprivileged area on the outskirts of the city.

The small, makeshift community there had sprung up around a canal that was polluted and toxic to the health of the nearby inhabitants.

Students were able to observe the state working with COHAB to help relocate the residents into new, state-provided homes, where they were also given medical checkups to ensure they remained healthy moving forward.

“As we were looking at these makeshift homes, the students realized their privilege and understand their good fortune in not living in places like that,” Goldsmith said. “They were shocked to see how in this country, the care of a person’s health was not based on their ability to pay, but on the fact that they were part of the community. The lesson learned for our students as they described it was ‘We used to believe that we were the best, strongest, most powerful, and humane nation in the world, but what we thought of as our American exceptionalism really is not exceptional.’ So they came away looking at how they would like to import certain systems to our own citizens.”

For Goldsmith, these observations, and the lessons that they bring with them are possibly the most valuable part of these types of study abroad trips.

“These trips create a sense of humility for our students, and that sense of humility makes them much better inquirers, because they can compare things systemically in one city and in ours and look at our ability to import ideas and transformational change, and I think that’s very important,” Goldsmith said.

The idea of sustainability existing on a more personal level than that of just generation-spanning, long-term sustainability is something that Goldsmith felt this trip exemplified. It provided an opportunity for students to see sustainability that can be accomplished within their own lifetimes, and as part of their own careers.

“I think it’s very important that students, rather than just read about these ideas, can instead go and test them against the realities of what they see. This helps to remove cynicism, it removes skepticism, and can also create a robust and passionate way of approaching the change that can be sustainable within their own lives,” Goldsmith said. “What one witness in Curitiba is that [sustainability] creates social cohesion. Where the community realizes that sustainability is community work, it’s not top-down from the government. While it’s necessary for there to be policies that come from the government to help strengthen the ability to support sustainable practices in cities, what they’ve demonstrated around sustainability is that it builds community cohesion, and that’s a very exciting thing to see.”

Goldsmith has most recently been touring with Jaime Lerner as part of the urban planner’s newest book release. The book, “Urban Acupuncture,” is the first of Lerner’s books to be published in English, and Goldsmith said he has already begun implementing themes and ideas of practical sustainability from the book in his current courses at the university.

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