red-orange image of brick work.

Building Back Green in the Global North and South

by Katja Holtz

It might surprise some to know that the phrase, “build back better”, which benefits from being both pithy and alliterative, predates the pandemic and US President Biden’s campaign. The UN, and its composite world leaders, have been slinging it about for over fifteen years. Now though, it has acquired new and occasionally promising scope.

Considering the scale of the pandemic, which, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, drew attention to the lacklustre state of global sustainable development, building back better has taken on new urgency.

The prevailing plan for accomplishing true, global flourishing centres the environment. Amongst other things, the argument for more green spaces in our world’s cities is a popular one. For many, calls for the expansion of urban green space during over the last two years in particular illustrate the overlap between the pandemic and the climate crisis. Overcrowding and high population density are significant contributing factors to the spread of disease and relate directly to climate justice.

The trouble, as ever, is in divining solutions that are not only sustainable but suitable. Patently, what will do in New York may not (and almost certainly, will not) do in Johannesburg.

For instance, some suggest that in New York City “build back better” involves greening Park Avenue. The New York Times published an article in May, exploring the history and future of the Avenue’s florescent median strip. Running almost the length of Manhattan, it currently boasts picturesque tulip beds and pink flowering cherry trees.

In the wake of COVID-19, however, calls to reclaim the streets include reintroducing benches, expanding the median, as well as eliminating traffic lanes and making space for bike lanes and footpaths.

After a year and a half spent confined to our cities’ narrow streets, living constantly under the threat of serious illness, many have come to value existing urban green spaces like never before. See similar plans for Oxford Circus in London.

The accelerating pace of climate breakdown calls for greater environmental consciousness and projects such as the renovation of Park Avenue certainly fit the bill. Two birds, one stone.

This is what some world leaders, international organisations, and commentators are calling the “green recovery”.

Despite best intentions, at present, global spending is a very mixed bag. According to the OECD Green Recovery Database, the energy and surface transport sectors currently account for the majority of green measures being implemented at the national level across the world. Biodiversity, water, and waste/recycling, on the other hand, are receiving comparatively little attention. This is where initiatives like the Park Avenue project could set a positive precedent for a recovery that prioritises biodiversity and urban ecology.

However, pandemic recovery that centres infrastructural adaptations such as rewilding and greening face a number of challenges, not limited to public backlash, funding, space, and political will. Even in a city like New York, with the will, the funding, and the space, greening projects face backlash.

Across many parts of the African continent and beyond, these challenges are compounded. A so-called “Green Apartheid” in South Africa and similar patterns of spatial injustice elsewhere, have been made startlingly visible by the pandemic.

It is generally true that lower income residential areas have the least access to green infrastructures, including green spaces and street trees. This is particularly acute in South Africa where the relationship is strongly linked to both race and income status. This kind of spatial injustice carries serious implications for residents’ health under ordinary circumstances and in the event of an epi/pandemic can mean vastly unequal health outcomes.

Besides the health disparities caused by such unequal access, it has come to be understood as an important environmental justice issue. A variety of factors including high poverty levels, large numbers of urban migrants, and culturally specific uses of natural resources, make a “green recovery” particularly salient in the Global South context.

For instance, a report by Kaoma and Shackleton found that 20% of cash and non-cash income to Black households in poor neighbourhoods in South Africa involved the collection of wild biodiversity resources. Additionally, unlike in the US and Europe, much of the green infrastructure in South Africa is used for urban agriculture and other purposes.

Multi-purpose green spaces such as these have considerable benefits for the city and the communities living in them. Therefore, it stands to reason, South Africa and other countries like it would benefit tremendously from measures being implemented elsewhere though they may tend more toward urban farms and allotments than parks and median strips.

The challenge then becomes thinking innovatively; moving away from solutions conceived in the US and Europe and toward solutions by and for the continent. Solutions which bear in mind the multiple uses of urban green space; the relationship between migrant and host populations; water scarcity; wealth, space, and infrastructural distribution.

A Foresight for Development report states: “we firmly believe that Africa’s unique pathways to emerging from Covid-19 will come from organic solutions that hack the opportunities presented.”

Centring “informal, make-shift, indigenous processes”, a South African green recovery may look nothing like an English one or a Japanese one but if it is to be truly sustainable with the resources and people available, that is as it must be.

Both the pandemic and the climate crisis have given us an eye for the global, for problems and solutions rolled out wholesale, in uniformity. It is important, essential really, to remember the ways in which regions, countries, cities differ and therefore how our approach to post-COVID-19 planning must differ.

It is true everywhere that a just recovery from the pandemic is one which is sustainable but it does not follow that ‘sustainable’ means the same thing everywhere. Working with local communities and organisations, experts on their own futures, is the only way to truly build back better.