By: Sarah Sieloff, Executive Director
I spent last weekend at the Pacific Council’s annual Members’ Weekend. Based in Los Angeles and founded in 1995, the Pacific Council on International Policy exists to reframe international relations as a concern not only for foreign policy practitioners, but for the larger population of the U.S. West Coast. Its members span the U.S. and work in the public, private and non-profit sectors. The goal is to provide a non-partisan platform for learning, networking and action for people who are interested in international relations and citizen diplomacy, but who don’t work in the field on a daily basis.
While I work daily with U.S. communities, my academic training and professional background are international. Prior to joining CCLR, I worked in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the South Pacific on a variety of issues, and that work informs what I do at CCLR. Around the world, the goals of economic development are consistent: improve lives and help people build better futures. The reasons communities take on land recycling projects are also the reasons for repaving critical roads in the island nation of Vanuatu, training women to run a farming co-op in Nicaragua, and figuring out the best way to maneuver an affordable ambulance through downtown Mumbai. Keeping a foot in the international realm is important to me not only for reasons of intellectual curiosity, but because it helps me understand our collective work of land reuse in new ways and in a global context. I can connect issues I hadn’t previously tied together, and in my wake, I get to leave a series of people who are now more informed about land reuse, its possibilities, and its implications.
Questions and Connections: Land Recycling in the International Context
Back at the Pacific Council, Members’ Weekend programming spanned a wide range of topics. Ambassador David Satterfield, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs with the U.S. State Department, opened the program on Friday night with a discussion of U.S. foreign policy priorities in the Middle East. As he discussed ISIS and war in Syria, my mind turned to a question I’ve often pondered in recent months: what is the environmental cost of war, and why don’t we hear more about it? The U.S. exploded the largest non-nuclear bomb ever over Afghanistan in April. This Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb carried 11 tons of explosives. What do those 11 tons of explosives mean for Afghanistan’s soil, water and air in the short and long term? How will contamination caused by war impact redevelopment efforts later? What can the experience of other countries like Japan, Germany, France and the U.K. teach us about post-war decontamination? Land mine removal activists have successfully raised international awareness about their cause, and while decontamination requires more, the international conversation about the environmental impacts of war seems to have stopped there. Why is no one talking about this?
A panel about climate change, global population movements, and the rise of climate refugees as an emerging type of migrant was equally thought provoking. Among other topics, we discussed the role of urbanization in climate migration. The United Nations estimates that the planet became majority urban for the first time in human history around 2007, and that by 2050, about 2/3 of people worldwide will live in urban areas. Here’s the most interesting point for land reuse practitioners: while their rise grabs headlines, the fastest growing cities in the developed world aren’t megacities (populations over 10 million). Counterintuitive though it might seem, tertiary and secondary cities are growing fastest, and per the U.N., nearly half of the world’s urbanites live in rapidly growing settlements of 500,000 people or fewer.
As a point of reference, Oakland, where CCLR’s offices are headquartered, is home to 420,000 people, and its size is not insignificant. As land reuse practitioners, we know what happens when small towns grow rapidly and without adequate planning: sprawl, inadequate infrastructure, fiscal challenges, and a host of other issues. Now imagine these problems, but add in a lack of water, sanitation, electrical, and transportation infrastructure, without the resources to address any of these. These smaller cities are the first destinations of many people for whom drought, flooding or fluctuations in temperatures force them to leave rural areas and migrate in search of a better economic future. What do we as land reuse practitioners know that can help these smaller cities and the people who inhabit them, and how can we share this information?1
Perhaps the most thought provoking session of the weekend was Friday night’s “campfire session” on water scarcity. With the Pacific Council’s Water Scarcity Fellow as our facilitator, ten of us (including a lawyer, a judge, a professor, a film producer, a transportation planner and two non-profit leaders) explored different aspects of the global water crisis, both abroad and in California. I shared with the group my concerns about groundwater contamination, and the risks that brownfields pose for our future water sustainability. We also discussed green infrastructure and the potential for these projects to deliver substantial benefits in terms of water quality and quantity. We explored how we could make conversations about water scarcity more productive by forging connections between California and the rest of the world. We all need water. Let the scope of our conversations reflect that.
Moving Forward: Internationalizing Our Approaches
In the U.S., our conversations about land recycling tend not to include examples or information from our international colleagues. In some ways, that’s understandable: land recycling is time consuming and complex, and many people don’t have time to explore or understand how land recycling works in different parts of the world. In a larger sense, that kind of narrow focus on the U.S. cannot continue. International connections have never been more important to our field as a whole. As I noted in a previous blog post about sustainability in Japan, the reason we have such a hard time defining a sustainable city is that none of us know what one looks like. We need good ideas wherever we can find them. Why wouldn’t we want to know how our colleagues in other countries are approaching land reuse?
CCLR will be exploring that question at this year’s National Brownfields Training Conference from December 4-7 in Pittsburgh, PA. If you’ll be attending the conference, join us. We’re pleased to collaborate with the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. to present “Around the World in 60 Minutes with Brownfields Redevelopment.” This panel will feature Irene Garcia from the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office; Gabrielle Muris, principal and founder at Urban Impact, a planning firm in Utrecht, The Netherlands; and CCLR Board Member Mary Hashem, principal and co-founder at RE | Solutions, who is authoring a new paper on comparative international brownfields redevelopment and will present examples from China and the U.K.
It’s a small world, after all. Join us for this panel, and bring your thoughts and questions about international policy and land reuse. Never has international dialogue been more important for our work. We look forward to continuing the conversation with you in Pittsburgh.
1 For more information about the impacts of climate change on global poverty eradication, see the 2016 World Bank report, “Shock Waves.”