Cities are on the cusp of change and need to work together to address the evolving challenges. Abhishek Pandey, Editor of Urban Update caught up with Emilla Saiz, Secretary General of United Cities and Local Governments World during the UCLG ASPAC Congress in Surabaya, Indonesia. In the candid conversation, Emilla talks about the role of women in city governance, livability in cities, climate change and much more. Excerpts from the interview…
Cities need to transform themselves to create a livable environment for citizens. What has been your experience working with cities around the world? What is your vision for cities?
Well, the United Cities and Local Governments do not provide any vision to cities. They themselves develop a vision.What we do as an organization is to bring them together and try to foster new thinking and stimulate learning from each other and innovate.In that sense, we are learning together. We are in a period of drastic transformation of most of the models that have been functioning in urban space.
A majority of people now live in urban areas.We need to think differently about the solutions that we need to provide to local and global problems. The interconnection between the both has also changed. From our perspective, there are three key things that we need to tackle. The first one is the relation of local governments with their citizens and communities. There is a need to ensure that citizens truly participate in decision making process so that they feel close to the decisions that are going to be affecting their lives. And, we translate that into right to the city. So that’s a first step.
Then comes the ecological transition.Transforming production and consumption patterns to make our cities more resilient and citizens being aware of what they’re leaving behind for the next generations.And, the third key angle is thinking differently about how we share resources particularly financial resources. We think that local and regional governments need more resources than they are currently getting in general from national governments, from their financial system. So those are the three accesses. And what UCLG at the global level is trying to do is to voice these needs and these visions for the international community and trying to get the right seat at the table for us to share these things.
You have talked about community participation that is crucial. Now coming to the role of women leaders in cities. How do you see their roles? I ask this because women especially in developing countries are not empowered enough because of social norms and other constraints. How are you going to empower them?
Our commitment to gender equality is something that has always been very high on our political agenda. It’s not a matter of better or worse; it is a matter of human rights and equality. We think that by stimulating participation of women in local decision making you are really contributing to equality at all levels and you are contributing to improving the lives of citizens in general.
What is the way forward? We have seen especially in European countries that many big European cities like Paris, Barcelona, Rome have women mayors. Many countries are trying to bring legislation for reservation for women mayors like in India they have a 33 per cent reservation and some states have even 50 percent reservation. Is reservation the solution or something else is also required alongside?
Well, this system has worked up to a point but I don’t think that they have been successful as we expected. I am still very much in favor of the system because we simply cannot wait another hundred years to have more and more women in power. Apart from this, I think that there are many things that need to be changed for women to become more visible.At this moment, we are going through a very strange phenomenon, a very logical phenomenon which is that you have a lot of women in very important positions but they don’t reach the top positions. They don’t reach that position simply because there is a cultural or traditional view of things that does not go with the way women are looking at life. For instance, women get involved in politics and continue for one or two terms and after that they don’t carry on. They don’t enter in politics full time.
I am very much in favor of this notion of feminizing politics. Which entails also changing the patterns that we use arranging access to politics. I don’t share the view that women don’t have capacity. I mean they have high degrees and do more jobs.They are overqualified but they live in an environment which has really strong glass ceiling that they cannot overcome.
And in order to help them overcome these glass ceilings, we need to develop policies that make it easier for women to participate. You need to change the way political parties work; they need to arrange meetings at different hours. UCLG is trying to create a mentoring system for women. They are in politics already so that they can talk with each other and share their experiences so that we don’t lose and they stay. One thing that is very interesting for us to see is that many women councillors and mayors have reached that post but are not able to participate internationally because their financial resources are much lower than those of men. Their political parties are not backing them.And this is a change of mentality. You don’t solve this by a law. I think that we need to ensure that children and youth are educated differently.
You talked about feminizing policies. Vienna is a good example. They started gender mainstreaming and they have mobility plan according to women’s daily schedule.How do you see that? Are other cities doing enough for women?
I think there is a very big movement.We can feel very alive in UCLG.The arrival of women leadersin big cities, the ones we all know like Mexico City or Tunis is crucial. It’s not that women have not been doing the job but for these women to reach those iconic positions has been extremely important.I mean when women walk on the streets, when women attend a meeting, they have a different perception, a different vision and priorities. It is not always better but different.
So their predecessors have done something for the city and they’re doing something else, and addressing the needs of the people those
Exactly. It can be complementary,you know. I think that that there are big efforts for instance whatMayor of Surabaya is doing in its public spaces here.It has a lot to do with her perception as a womanin the city. How we move, how we feel safe, what do we like, how the children behave when they go with us or with the elderly people that we care or the places where we like to meet. So it is all related to that. And, I think that the arrival of female mayors in big cities is helping us bringing these messages out and showing what is the difference.
Have you seen the shift in policy making?
Certainly, I mean, the shift is clear. As I was saying, it’s not always about better or worse but it’s just different types of priorities. We tend to care more about the use of time so we care a lot about mobility how to arrive at places. Women use mass transportation or public transportation much more than men. They need a different sense of security. They have different times to set up meetings to be away from home because they also have critical responsibilities in their houses. And, in all of these policies, you can see differences.Also usefully that teams are set up in a different way.
Even the public places are designed to be friendlier for women.
Public spaces and transportation become more friendly to women, children and elderly because that’s how women like to move.Women move usually surrounded by other people.They take their children to school, they take care of the elderly and they do shopping in between. That is whythey set up their teams at municipalities differently. Women always like interdisciplinary teams. They also like mixed teams. The teams where you see social scientists talking to engineers and other
types of experts.
Climate change and air pollution are major concerns for cities world over.Like many cities the air pollution is very high especially in developing countries. How can cities address this critical problem?
To me, climate change is beyond CO2 emissions. We have done so much damage to our planet. In present context, climate change is more about the ecological transition. It is also about how we want to live.Being very aware of what the ecological footprint is going to be will be part of the way that new generations will look at it. I think new generations probably need fewer things. And they will be more aware of their connection with nature. That will also make us look at local economic development from a different perspective. It will not be any longer about the big companies and multinationals etc.There are things that you don’t need to produce at multi-national level. We will see cities consuming things that are produced locally. It’s a new type of localism.
I mean that we have been convinced in the past that all the big ideas had to come from the world and those needed to be implemented in our cities. I think that right now what mayors are showing us is that we are very intelligent at community level. We know best what are the realities and thinking solutions locally can actually help us. Building a global home for all of us which is much more resilient, much more sustainable and that will allow us all to live in a happier way. We should not always be rushing and concerned about
So this brings us to our discussion where I would like to talk about livability. What are the key criteria for livability?
Livability of a city for me is where people are able to fulfil their dreams. People feel secure. They feel treated with justice. They can hold their government accountable and they can use their creativity and they don’t spend their whole life trying to make a living. But they have also time to think and enjoy with family. That is what livability is for me.
You should be treated fair. For this, you need to have a sound system of governance that listens to you and cares about you. Citiesneed to have adequate public spaces, public transportation systems, functional sanitation systems. All of this is related.I don’t agree to Global Livability Index in which global South is always rated poorly. I think that we sometimes rate badly on the basis of service provisions, but if you ask some of these countries how happy they are, they might be happier.
Like, Bhutan has Gross National Happiness Index.
Yes exactly. And I think that happiness index is very important because I think that our conception of consumption has led us to believe that more things make us happier. This might not be necessarily true. I think that we need to change models. I hope that we can make sure that the evolution of the big cities in the global South is not going to be car solution.
The big mistake that we made in the global North. So for me it is about approaching things from a distance and trying to find solutions that way they are very local.
What is your take on relation between Federal, State and Local Governments?
Federal governments should be listening to local governments about what they know and how that should shape their national policies. What type of support do they need? What type of fiscal transfers do they need?
What is the intrinsic value of urban governance systems?
The aspect of being treated fairly. We did this big survey in many countries around the world before we had to define the SDGs, a lot of people said that they wanted to be treated with justice. Justice was at the top. In the world where you have over 800 million people without a home, it is impossible for these people to feel they are treated with justice. So we need to address
How optimistic you are about achieving Sustainable Development Goals?
SDGs is an agenda that has given me a lot of hope because it was adopted at a moment where there were a lot of divisions among countries, the conflicts worldwide were escalating. And there were a lot of issues that we were able to define. It was a summit of hope. That was amazing. Now, if you go and look at the goals in detail, they are not that ambitious. They are achievable.
I am optimistic because I think a lot of people are working tirelessly to actually achieve the goals. But we will not be able to do it if we don’t put a lot of emphasis in addressing these goals at local level. We call it’localizing SDGs’. Our strategy in United Cities and Local Governments is about localization. It is not to be understood as the parachuting of global goals and local reality, but the other way round, by showing what we can do locally, what works and what doesn’t.
National governments and the international community need to build support systems that allow us to do a better job. Actually over 65 per cent of SDGs are about public services that are in the hands of local governments. So I am cautiously optimistic.