Turning Adversity into Opportunity: Ghettos and Slums as Hotbeds of Green Innovation


Professor at San Francisco State University and co-founder of (I-SEEED)

I recently gave a TEDx talk on Mastering TAO. Not TAOism in terms of Eastern philosophy—although, in some ways, yin and yang are a part of it—but in this case TAO stands for Turning Adversity into Opportunity. I call the people, places, and policies that have mastered the art of Turning Adversity into Opportunity “Hope Dealers.”

Hope Dealers ask questions like: What kinds of public and private investments in green infrastructure can help us innovate our way out of poverty? How are our ghettos, slums, and barrios hotbeds of green innovation? What is the role of so-called “slum dwellers” in the future of green cities and in building the green economy? And how can we change the negative narrative of “slum dwellers” so that they can be seen for who and what they are—everyday people and community members—not slums, but neighborhoods with families living, working, playing, praying, loving, living, eating, drinking, walking, biking, and taking their kids to and from school.

These are important questions because the fastest-growing cities are not skyscraper cities like Dubai, Singapore, Shanghai—places that try to make poverty invisible in order to attract investment—but rather informal settlements, ghettos and slums, where poor people typically face inadequate housing structures, enormous environmental health hazards, land use rights, safety threats, vulnerability, and social exclusion.

An estimated one billion people live in slums all over the world. These communities are often beyond city planning and regulation, and account for more than 30 percent of the developing world’s urban population. This means 1 in 7 people on the planet are experiencing spatial—and to a certain extent 20th-century remnants of racial apartheid.   The most formidable challenge of the 21st-century city, then—in the face of massive population growth, climate change, and rapid urbanization—is extending public–private partnerships and green infrastructure solutions—clean energy, water, sanitation, parks, protected pathways, greenways, busways, health services, LEED, and especially LEED for Neighborhood Development— to these informal settlements.

Mastering TAO and understanding how slums and ghettos can be transformed into hot,beds of green innovation are critical for the U.S. Green Building Council, EcoDistricts, Urban Land Institute, Energy Star, and others who want to grow and fulfill their promise of “democratizing development” (without displacement) and “scaling sustainability.” Because if these organizations want to remain green global leaders, they will have to make their tools, products, and resources more culturally and community responsive to the fastest-growing demographics and the fastest-growing cities that are becoming the world’s major commercial centers of the 21st century.  In other words, “Greening the Ghetto” as my friend and MacArthur Genius Award winner Majora Carter’s inspiring call to action suggested many years ago—is the next frontier.

If Greening the Ghetto 2.0 is the next frontier it is because the challenges of rapid urbanization and advances in technology offer new opportunities for communities to engage with planning and development from the ground up. The necessity to innovate our way out of poverty is clear. In slums and ghettos innovation is a lifeline for these communities, not about business opportunities or gentrifying physical spaces.It’s life and death. It’s about moving from surviving to thriving. The shift from viewing “folks in the ‘hood” as a billion problems to the power of a billion potential solutions is the first step in revolutionizing community transformation.  Rather than finding ways to further exclude and make these “popup” communities more invisible, mastering TAO requires creative engagement, inclusion, and shared respect.

That’s what happened in Medellin, Colombia, which has to be one of the most remarkable green urban redemption projects in modern history.  Just 20 years ago the name Medellin, ruled by the infamous cocaine drug lord Pablo Escobar, was synonymous with “murder capital of the world.”  Today, Medellin is internationally recognized for its carbon reduction, stunning botanical gardens, library, parks, and innovative public transportation systems. What made all of this possible? The municipal government now spends 85 percent of its $2.2 billion on infrastructure and services for the poorest parts of the city. Strong government financial and policy commitment has spurred investment and public–private partnerships to such an extent that Medellin was awarded the Most Innovative City in the World by ULI, the Wall Street Journal, and Citigroup in 2013.

Pune, India, is another example of innovation out of poverty. In the Yerwada slum upgrade-design, incremental housing strategies allowed shantytowns to be replaced with one-, two-, and three-story single and multifamily townhouses. A key innovation was their culturally aware use of space where small—150 to 250 sq ft—felt bigger by building vertically instead of horizontally and enabling extended families to stay together. 
But the real magic was how everyday people in Pune were the Hope Dealers who drove the urban redesign processes from community mobilization to designing of re-blocking plans and upgrading of homes, to negotiations with city governments around building regulations and delivery of basic social services.  More recently, Pune has switched from using private contractors and trucks for waste management to using informal unions of self-employed waste pickers who hand sort the city’s garbage.  In ghettos and slums this type of arrangement can raise waste pickers’ income, improve quality of life in the slum, save the city money, and reduce landfill and pollution all at the same time.

What can we learn from these examples?  Government leaders in Pune, and across the world in places like Portland, Detroit, Dakar, Denver, Atlanta, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Oakland, Sydney, Cairo, Cape Town, New York, London, and Paris have indicated that the biggest obstacle to slum upgrading, development without displacement, and green building design is the lack of diverse community engagement platforms.

Mastering the art of Turning Adversity into Opportunity through culturally and community responsive technology platforms is a new and resurgent solution that will help democratize how we produce, consume, and solve social problems. Community- driven technology has the power to transform the way we do business, build community, and accelerate sustainable neighborhood development from the ground up.  It is the missing link in green and healthy built environment conversations, and is central to the concept of building healthy, resilient, and vibrant communities.  Amidst the white noise of creating and maintaining sustainable buildings and communities, TAO is emerging as the only solution that is big, global, and will impact every element of what we do—now and in the future.

Democratizing data and decisionmaking in our ghettos and slums shows that it is possible to solve the world’s greatest social problems—like poverty and global warming—by unleashing what best-selling author Lisa Gansky calls “people-poweredcommunities.”  And through the power of collaboration Hope Dealers show that it’s possible to govern ourselves, build a green economy, and create meaningful lives together. We can have development without displacement, social equity, clean energy, green healthy schools, and sustainable employment and economic development for everyone.  Hope Dealers understand what some of us too often forget—the age-old axiom that we are much stronger together than we are alone. So be a Hope Dealer.


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