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

Written by Antwi A. Akom

Antwi Akom, PhD. Executive Director and Co-Founder of i-SEEED

This article was originally published in the March/April 2015 issue of USGBC+. Read the original version.

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.

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