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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May-June 2010

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Editors' Picks - May/June 2010


Tim Campbell, Habitat International 33(2009): 195–201.

Why are some cities more prosperous while others struggle? Why can some cities be frontrunners in terms of sustainability, while others lag behind or appear bogged down? While the answers can be as varied as there are cities, the capacity of one city to learn from others and translate that knowledge to inform its own decisions might be the key to solving these disparities in success, according to an article published in 2009 in the journal Habitat International by Tim Campbell, entitled “Learning Cities: Knowledge, Capacity, and Competitiveness.”

There are many good, innovative practices. Take, for example, bus rapid transit (BRT) systems, which passed both technical and economical feasibility tests decades ago and are environmentally sound, but are still only used in a small number of cities. BRT started in Curitiba, Brazil, about 30 years ago, and the system has been adopted by other cities such as Beijing and Jakarta, as each subsequent city saw the previous cities' success. The questions researchers ask are, why do some cities learn to adopt such innovative systems as BRT, and how does learning occur in the cities that do adopt the technology?

Based on both empirical evidence and literature review, Campbell proposes a typology of learning in cities. Type I, which he identifies as “proactive cities,” are those that take initiative in the outward search for knowledge and information and commit resources to incorporating that knowledge in policy and practice. Type II, which he identifies as “city clusters,” are cities that are members of a particular category, e.g., cities of cultural heritage, or Olympic cities involved in more or less sustained, but episodic programs of exchange, with intermittent technical meetings and visits. Type III, identified as “cities one-on-one,” refers to activities such as periodic, one-on-one exchanges between cities, which typically encompass short periods of time. Type IV, identified as “networks,” refers to membership organizations with convening power that work on behalf of member cities on technical, regulatory, or legal matters. On the member cities side, the involvement tends to be passive engagement.

Campbell focuses his analysis on Type I cities, with in-depth analysis of three selected cities—Bilbao, Spain; Seattle, Washington; and Curitiba, Brazil. He selected these cities based on the following criteria: having attained some renown as a leader, a reformer, or an innovator; being explicit about the importance of knowledge, institutionalized learning, and managing knowledge; and aggressively seeking out best practices or new modes of development over a sustained time period. Through comparative analysis, Campbell identifies three similarities among these cities: (i) In all cases, the city has a specific trigger for adopting its active approach, (ii) the city valued information and knowledge, and (ii) the city took the initiative to obtain that new knowledge, despite adopting different approaches to doing so.

Almost as important as the modality of learning is the impact of the learning process on the city's soft infrastructure. Campbell concludes that the collective endeavor in learning leads to a more cooperative spirit within the city and may increase external competitiveness. By briefly contrasting the learning processes of type I cities with other types, the author asserts that cities might need to manage multiple types of learning connections, both loose and occasional, and strong and continual.

While all the evidence seems to confirm the importance of proactive learning, it is important to ask why many cities still don't learn, as well as to address how learning can be initiated and encouraged among such cities. One reason for their failure to learn might be that learning entails costs. The author calls for more attention to be paid to facilitating learning through international funding agencies—by redirecting funds earmarked for technical assistance and capacity-building in project lending to more actively encourage cross-city learning.

While raising the issue and opening questions as to how and why different types of cities learn, the article still leaves many of the questions unanswered. How to effectively foster cross-city learning remains a task for the urban research community. While innovative cities can be proactive in obtaining knowledge, the task to identify, digest, and contextualize other cities' experiences is largely left to individual cities, with little support from the scientific community. These cities largely rely on the knowledge, outside of scientific literature, e.g., via personal interaction, city-to-city visits, annual reports and Web sites, which has resulted in what Campbell refers to as large “shadow markets” of knowledge. An urgent task for the scientific community is how to build generalizable and transferrable knowledge that goes beyond the individual case. The difficulties might arise from two fronts. One is that in-depth individual case studies, while revealing important lessons, are often context specific, and so difficult to translate to cross-city learning. In addition, literature-handling case studies tend to be viewed as anecdotal, and perhaps less important in the research literature.

Second is the lack of cross-case, large-scale analysis that derives generalizable and transferable knowledge, while paying attention to the context-specific features of case studies. This intermediate layer of study is needed to connect individual learning to cross-city patterns and enhance the “shadow markets” knowledge. These challenges need to be addressed and overcome if the scientific community is to catch up with innovative urban practices and make a valuable contribution.

- Xuemei Bai 


Oli Brown and Alec Crawford, International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2009,


Oli Brown and Alec Crawford, International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2009,

As the political negotiations continue to slowly churn, it is uncertain what form the global response to climate change will take. However, it is clear that climate changes may create conditions that pose challenges to conflict and stability. With much of the current climate-security research focusing on global trends, few studies have probed the implications for specific locations. A helpful departure from this trend are two recent publications from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), which attempt to address these knowledge gaps by looking at specific regions vulnerable to climate change and offering practical solutions for local actors. By examining two of the world's areas most exposed to climate-driven conflicts—Africa and the Middle East—these noteworthy reports provide us with critical insights for places already troubled by social instability, political mistrust, and scarce resources.

Drawing on a combination of field interviews, expert consultations, and climate model predictions, Oli Brown and Alec Crawford translate what has frequently been a generalized climate-security debate into tangible threats and pragmatic solutions designed for the local scale. Within a geographically delineated scope, each report integrates available literature and data regarding future climate “threat multipliers” with the unique security challenges endemic to each region. Merging climate science with local praxis, the authors strive to answer how particular political, economic, geographic, and cultural topographies will shape future crises. How will the combination of ongoing inter-state land disputes, growing populations, and fragile economic foundations affect the future vulnerability and resilience of the Middle East to climate pressures? Will the dependency of African nations on increasingly tenuous natural resources contribute to future conflict?

The authors push beyond intuitive climate change and security links and identify the multidimensional challenges posed by climatic variability. The general circulation models and regional climate models cited in the reports point to a future when many of the current crises that plague these regions will likely be exacerbated, thus threatening to overwhelm states' capacities to respond. In Africa, as in the Middle East, increasing water scarcity—a result of increased demand and heightened variability—may spur dangerous competition for remaining sources. Further, population pressures and decreased agricultural productivity could threaten fragile food security. The effects of rising global food prices, increasing rural unemployment, and the loss of arable land to desertification and development will strike already impoverished regions with particular ferocity. The resulting economic declines and rising poverty in areas reliant on agricultural production may spur more migration to urban centers, resulting in greater pressures on over-burdened infrastructure and government services. Such shifts, when matched with existing land disputes or refugee populations, may exacerbate societal fractures, civil unrest, or eventual militarization of resources—unwelcome additions to conflict-prone areas.

Though the challenges are “daunting,” the authors write in “Rising Temperatures” that “there is much that national governments and authorities, civil society, and the international community can do to combat climate change, adapt to its impacts, manage increasingly scarce resources and foster greater cooperation on their shared resources” (page 3). In light of these challenges, the authors recommend measures that, if implemented in a cooperative manner, could offer the possibility of peaceful and sustainable adaptation to future scarcity. But such action will depend on political and social recognition that common threats require shared responses.

The twin challenges of rising demand and increasingly scarcity may be tempered by designing efficient regional resource management schemes and establishing multinational cooperative conservation initiatives. Adaptation efforts, such as early-warning mechanisms and investments in regional resource management tools, could even provide opportunities for peacebuilding between rival neighbors. In the Middle East, the authors note, “community-level adaptation projects could help, in a modest way, to share skills and to build understanding between previously divided communities” (page 3). Such environmental cooperation with peacebuilding benefits is not as far-fetched as it might appear. Projects such as the NGO Friends of the Earth Middle East's (FOEME) Good Water Neighbors Project among Israeli, Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian communities have borne fruit directly from water and sanitation cooperation while delivering, in some cases, spillover benefits in political and security realms.

Finally, these IISD publications represent a strong example of combining, in short and accessible formats, primary research based on consultations and secondary research on climate impacts in a security context. The funder for the reports, the Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the year of the Copenhagen climate negotiations, demanded this accessible, policy-relevant approach. Too frequently the science and policy realms remain apart because of poor or no translation of analysis into decisionmaker-friendly formats. The authors succeed in doing justice to the complexity and uncertainty associated with the links among climate change, conflict, and security, while making a case for action on multiple levels.

- Geoffrey D. Dabelko

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