Village people protesting for peace in Bogota

From collectors of solid waste in Egypt carving a living from recycling their product to a program that engages youth and gangs in making budget and policy decisions in Boston, these are some of the ideas being judged for urban innovation in Bogota recently.

The Guangzhou City government has run a biennial award for Urban Innovation in 2012, 2014 and now in 2016. The aim is to find amazing examples around the world of cities implementing sustainable urban development and shortlist 15 projects that can be seen as inspirations for other cities around the world. This sounds straight forward but it gets complicated when a technical jury of 11 experts from around the world is assembled not in Guangzhou, but in Bogota in Colombia, to go through the 300 submissions to get to 15.

The Bogota connection was because the United Cities and Local Government organisation was holding a massive conference in Bogota with mayors gathering from around the world. So many cities, including the mayor of Guangzhou, were assembled in Bogota. The event was further complicated by the fact that the Colombian government had just narrowly lost a referendum on a peace process with rebels and the streets of Bogota were filled with protest marches in favour of peace. Thousands of colourfully clothed villagers had bussed into town to march to the tune of local music. Indians with feathered crowns and top hatted villagers added exotic colour to a city that is beginning to embrace high rise development nestling in a valley high in the mountains.

A bit like a jury in a court case our jury got to know each other early on. Among them was a senior Chinese planner from Beijing, an NGO (non government organisation) rep from India, a Nigerian woman in colourful dress, a Singaporean academic, another academic from South America, a German woman from an environmental organisation and a local Colombian architect. Our criteria were to measure innovativeness, effectiveness, replicability and significance of the 300 applications all under the guidance of former World Urban Forum head Nicholas Yu.

Village people protesting for peace in Bogota
Village people protesting for peace in Bogota

Sydney was nominated but didn’t get into the final 15. Those that did included some amazing projects often for smaller, poorer cities. The short listed cities are invited to Guangzhou in December this year for a workshop where each city presents their project and five winners are then selected. The Guangzhou government then organises tours to the 15 cities, publications and the Metropolis Group develops on-line material on the case studies.

Here are some of the final group of 15.

Asuncion, Paraguay – Master plan for the Historical Downtown

Asuncion has about half a million people in a low rise spreading city. The historic core has decayed and many buildings are now empty. The city is embarking on a renewal program that increases density and revitalises the historic core. The city is on a large river so the renewal project also manages flood issues and opens up new parks and recreation spaces. The community is involved through the Asuncion Open Laboratory with an on-line capability and workshops. Many other cities with decaying historic core can learn from this example.

Boston, USA ­–Youth Participatory Budgeting

This initiative empowers youth to be involved in decision making. The aim is to increase youth engagement in civic society through involvement in allocating resources and policymaking within the city structure. Disenfranchised groups including gangs are involved in the program that aims to increase the voice of youth in local government decision making.

Brussels, Belgium – Brussels Canal Area Urban Renewal

The canal area in Brussels is 2500 hectares and is a central axis of the city. The project regenerates the area through place branding, social engagement and environmental transformation. The project involves the public, private land owners, institutions and government working together to reimagine a new positive image of the city through the focus on the linear form of the canal.

Copenhagen , Denmark – Climate Resilient Neighbourhood

The Copenhagen Climate Adaption Plan has developed a strategy that includes many small projects that involve citizens transforming the city and improving the environment.  Projects include green roofs, rain gardens, street trees and storm water management plans.

Khosoos, Egypt – Integrated Community Based Solid Waste Management Project

Cairo has a large amount of solid waste that has traditionally been sorted and recycled by Christian waste pickers known as the Zabaleen. The city of Khosoos has developed a system of motorised tricycles to navigate the narrow streets to bring waste to a new transfer station. The city converts the waste to fuel for sale at an Integrated Recycling Resource Centre. The process of waste collection creates livelihood opportunities for the urban poor and is seen as a model for solid waste management in other cities.

The projects above are five of the urban innovations short listed for the 2016 Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation.

Having the judging in the city of Bogota at the time of much emotion about developing peace with rebel groups brought home to me how lucky Sydney is compared to so many other cities in the world. To see the proud villagers from outside Bogota marching through the centre of town while calling for peace was very moving. Equally moving was learning of urban innovations in hundreds of less well-off cities across the world.

Chris Johnson is chief executive officer of the Urban Task Force.

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