— Journal of Civil Rights & Economic Development


TODAY, about 56 per cent of the world’s population is urban. More people live in cities than in rural areas worldwide for the first time in history. By 2050, it will be nearly 70 per cent. The steady flow of humanity from rural to urban centres has given us the phenomenon of the ‘megacity’. In 1950, only New York and Tokyo qualified for the title, but today, there are around 33 megacities dotted across almost every continent.

Nine per cent of the world’s population will reside in one of the 43 future megacities by 2030. However, in 30 years, the global urban population and infrastructure will double. Urban investment decisions today will determine whether people would be locked into resource-inefficient and fossil fuel-dependent infrastructure and way of life or if they would enable cities to become places where we can live beautiful, healthy, and sustainable lives. Cities are where 80 per cent of the global economy is anchored.


They are also where 75 per cent of energy-related global CO2 emissions stem from. In 30 years, there will be a significant investment in urban infrastructure and its use, amounting to more than five times the global gross domestic product and the investments must be made sustainably and resiliently. Cities have, therefore, the potential to be efficient hubs of humanity that can support sustainable living, but many have not been designed that way. Urban planners worldwide are try to create ‘green’ cities, but will ‘green developments’ solve the issues within our cities?


Greenwashing and gentrification

THE push for decarbonisation and urban greening is growing, and rightly so. It has created a widely-shared template of what a green city should look like — shiny residential towers, waterfront parks, and so on. As a result, the planning language has emerged to achieve this, known as green and clean development. Propositions of many countries to develop new areas, therefore, increasingly employ sustainability and climate-smart development language. However, the sustainability model of ‘parks, cafes, and a riverwalk’ has been critiqued for generating new green spaces for the middle and primarily for more wealthy classes, culminating in a kind of green gentrification combining sustainability imperatives with traditional real estate regeneration initiatives. Green gentrification is a process of transforming urban areas into eco-friendly projects such as parks, bicycle lanes and green roofs, which serve affluent residents.

Urban greening can sometimes be less of a climate-centric move and more of a high-end real estate development proposition that tries to attract investment, attention and residents; rather than incentivising the hard work of decarbonisation, it can encourage superficial beautification that is a distraction. Many cities have an agenda linked to greening public spaces, but what is happening along the way is that greening contributes to the construction of new high-end, generally large-scale housing that increases property values and property prices, leading to higher housing costs for the working class and the middle class. Greening can also contribute to segregation of public spaces, displacing low-income residents and small businesses and exacerbating social inequality. And this s an important aspect that sometimes gets dismissed.

It is imperative to emphasise that this relates to a considerable number of people, especially in societies where social safety mechanisms are not so strong. Investing in housing is a retirement plan whereby people can live beyond their working life based on the rent they may accrue. Many economists claim that what we need to bring affordable housing back to cities is to build more housing, but the main problem is that 80 per cent of the housing constructed is high-end, contributing to a more incredible housing price bubble and a greater concentration of housing access for upper- and middle upper-class residents.

The housing crises in the global north’s ‘superstar cities’, including London, Frankfurt, New York, and Sydney, receive much media coverage. However, the housing affordability crisis is even more severe in rapidly urbanising regions of the global south, where 26 of the world’s 33 megacities are located because a lot of the cities, especially in the global south, are complicated places as there are numerous formal and informal organisational structures and governance mechanisms. Urbanisation has outpaced development, creating teeming but dysfunctional megacities such as Lagos, Karachi, Kinshasa and Dhaka. It is challenging to act in this situation and establish a setting suitable for evaluating cutting-edge ‘smart-green’ city technologies.

The urban development scenario has become more prevalent because of the efforts of global management consultancies such as Boston Consulting Group, Accenture, and McKinsey to build ‘green’ city initiatives. Inclusion, sustainability and equity are consistently incorporated into proposals for privately sponsored ‘cities of the future.’ Unfortunately, these gleaming visions are not always compatible with social or climate justice principles. Cities have complex networks of power and money.

Navigating the overlapping and often competing interests is a huge challenge, especially when efforts are to transition to an urban system geared towards climate justice and social justice. As a result, there is a profound injustice which the residents of the global south and significantly lower-income residents — those who have produced the least carbon emissions and are most exposed to the impact of climate change — have the fewest resources to cope and are those who benefit the least from climate resilient infrastructure and might even be displaced by it.

We see many spaces meant to be public and open that, after a while, become privatised or occupied. So, in that sense, those public spaces become segregated rather than being for the residents for whom they were advertised. Greening is much more complex than it seems from a distance. It involves a lot more than just injecting nature into concrete jungles. A holistic approach to developing a sustainable city has to factor in equity, possibilities of displacement and dangers of superficial short-term decarbonising versus long-term structurally significant changes that reduce emissions.

Without such multi-layered approaches, a campaign to make a city ‘greener’ could result in what is called green locally unwanted land uses. These spaces may seem better from a low-carbon perspective but are contested by poorer, marginalised classes as the area has become greener and gentrified. Gentrification, which accompanies the greening of cities, is becoming such a pervasive motor of displacement of inequality because even the middle class cannot afford to live in the city’s centre and is displaced miles away. In addition, the investment and construction industry have successfully ‘financialised’ housing so that a fundamental human right has been recast to park and grow capital. Now, greening is the latest way to continue to sell homes as investment vehicles, pushing towards capturing the ‘nouveau riche’.

Over the past decade, multiple African countries have proposed urban utopias, often called ‘green’ or ‘smart’ cities, which promise to solve poverty and economic stagnation through tech-enabled, citizen-responsive, and carbon-neutral urban planning. However, there is often a gap between ambitions for eco-friendly cities and complications of building ideal urban spaces amidst existing structures and systems.


Climate and social justice

THE magnetic pool of city living is not surprising. That is why the design of cities has to factor in not only exponential population growth but also the precarious state of the climate. Cities must, therefore, take several actions to become low-carbon, shift from fossil fuel to renewable energy and resilient to climate change impact. The most significant challenge for cities is recognising that they must be sustainable in their entire inflows and outflows of energy, water, food, and materials. The second most important challenge is to build resilient cities. Ninety per cent of growth will be located in Asia and Africa. Africa will double its urban population in the next 30 years. As cities continue to grow when their carbon emissions balloon, there is often a misplaced focus on population growth as the key driver of increased pollution. It is a simplistic reading where mistakes correlate with the cause. Because what is really at the root of rising emissions in growing cities is often carbon-intensive urban design and city living — in the global north and, now, in the global south.

Greening can help with urbanism in some circumstances such as Milan and its two vertical buildings, the Bosco Verticale, which have 17 and 24 stories of premium residences. The 1,500 trees and 15,000 plants that those structures wonderfully advertise for the assortments do not offset the concrete required to make the buildings. Then we see how urban greening helps to promote housing to expats, temporary residents and visitors. The ‘Cristobal de Mouna’ resilient green corridor in Barcelona’s Poblano district addresses heat island effects and stormwater management challenges. Finally, Barcelona is transitioning from a city dominated by concrete public spaces to one that integrates nature.

Global city ‘liveability’ rankings place cities hierarchically; certain criteria can be ludicrous. Liveability and sustainability indexes are often used to pre-qualify cities for attracting foreign investments. However, they only examine a subset of factors. As a result, certain cities that are performing poorly have been included in the index, even though their inclusion is deemed a success. Cities, which house more than half of the world’s population, are at the forefront of the climate crisis. The buzz around cities and their efforts to sustainability sounds very promising, but how they develop, function and evolve all have an impact. For green cities to become low-carbon and sustainable, additional measures are required. Climate justice, which makes equity and fairness equally as crucial as low emissions and waste, needs to be central to modern urban planning. Climate change, after all, causes problems for everyone; so, it only makes sense when the solutions we build are for everyone, too.

In October 2022, mayors from around the world gathered in Buenos Aires for the C40 Summit to discuss how to lead the shift from pollution-based economies to a future focused on people by making cities cleaner, greener and more equitable. Cities should be for people, not for profit. And if cities are for people, profit will invariably accompany that enterprise because the cities have huge populations and a ready market. So ensuring that social and environmental considerations are prioritised in economic decision-making is a win-win. There is no blueprint. We have to take each city in its own historical and cultural setting and understand what is needed there and the citizens must set those priorities.


Threats in Bangladesh

BANGLADESH, like many other developing countries, is undergoing rapid urbanisation. Dhaka, the capital, is one of the fastest-growing megacities in the world. The urban population is growing alarmingly. More people, mostly young people migrating from rural areas, are trying to relocate to the capital in search of better education, job and higher standards of living. Those without a basic education are migrating as they seek work in the informal economy, which can be precarious. Up to 80 per cent of the people working in Bangladesh cities are involved in informal economic activities. Unfortunately, this has also led to the exploitation of natural resources and environmental degradation.

Encouraging developers to comply with regulations can be challenging, but we must acknowledge our reliance on real estate development at the local level. With greater policy support, we can avoid being trapped. Cities must have more space and scope to do radical things and become the exemplars of the kind of political transformation needed. However, there is undoubtedly much scope for greenwashing, promoting themselves as environmentally conscious despite making minimal changes to day-to-day operations of local government authorities. It is business as usual, but they invest significantly in communications and marketing to tell a different story.

Bangladesh is not immune to the phenomenon of green gentrification. Green gentrification has recently become a tenacious issue in Bangladesh’s urban planning and environmental policy discussions as it looks to develop sustainably while preserving its natural resources. With a growing middle class and increasing awareness of the importance of environmental sustainability, green gentrification has become a trend transforming many urban areas. The green phenomenon sometimes also seems standard for urban development projects that aim to improve the environment and public health, pushing low-income residents to the outskirts. The development of Hatirjheel has resulted in the eviction of many informal settlers. An unequal access to green spaces and public health resources exacerbates social and economic disparities. This can have severe consequences for the residents who often have limited options for affordable housing. This perpetuates a poverty and environmental degradation cycle.


Possible way out

WE MUST challenge the notion that urban progress should prioritise individual ownership to effectively tackle the issue. We must recognise land as a communal resource, not a tool for personal profit. This requires a complete overhaul of the financial frameworks. To combat gentrification and displacement further, the government must implement a range of strategies such as long-term housing regulations, construction regulations, luxury development taxes, rent control, rent decrease policies, and inclusive green growth. It is imperative that we take bold action to create equitable and sustainable cities for all.

In Bangladesh, the issue of green gentrification can be tackled through a more inclusive and participatory urban planning. Policymakers should prioritise affordable housing options in environmentally-friendly buildings that cater to all residents’ needs rather than just the wealthy. The government should involve affected communities in designing and implementing green development projects to achieve this. Regulations should also be made to safeguard low-income individuals from eviction, and infrastructure investment should benefit citizens of all income levels.

In areas where environmentally-friendly construction projects are implemented, the government must promote policies prioritising affordable housing and job opportunities for low-income individuals. The government must also prioritise public transports and infrastructure investments for an easy public access to the new green spaces and decrease the need for personal vehicles.

Cities are undoubtedly key players in economic development but also paradoxically the primary source of some environmental challenges, especially climate change. Integrating knowledge, people, the economy, value and resources are critical to finding sustainable solutions. Although it poses challenges, such accumulation also come with challenges. The government must prioritise community-driven,  inclusive urban planning strategies to combat adverse effects of green gentrification on sustainable development in Bangladesh. While eco-friendly neighbourhoods may appear beneficial on the surface, they often negatively affect low-income residents. As cities are significant carbon emissions producers, it is vital to address the impact of climate change on urban residents and infrastructure. Flooding and heat island effects pose a significant threat to many, especially informal workers, the working class, the elderly and the marginalised.


Md Zahurul Al Mamun is an independent climate research and Uswatun Mahera Khushi is an assistant professor of local government and urban development in Jatiya Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam University.

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