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On the Environment

Friday, December 19, 2014
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Q&A with New Urban Research Fellow

By Susanne Stahl

The Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy is pleased to introduce Alisa Zomer as its inaugural Urban Research Fellow.

Alisa is a 2014 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) where she studied urban sustainability with a particular focus on governance and climate change adaptation and mitigation in cities. Prior to Yale, she worked at the World Resources Institute in Washington, DC, on issues related to access to information, participation, and justice in environmental decision-making.

She joined the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) team after graduation and is working on a number of projects, including a review of urban sustainability metrics, a sub-national environmental performance index for Viet Nam, and a civic science colloquium.


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YCELP: Your work has focused primarily on environmental governance, and you've worked on a number of issues from extractive resources to rights-based environmental approaches. How did you come to focus on urban sustainability?

Alisa: Right now the environmental movement has a fetish for cities. Cities are being branded as the biggest challenges for environmental degradation and also the biggest opportunities to promote sustainable development, and even mitigate climate change. Current obsession with sustainable cities aside, my interest in cities goes back and is closely wrapped up with issues of justice (or injustice) related to driving forces of urban change and demographic shifts.

Two specific examples come to mind: 1) redlining and blockbusting in the early nineteenth century, and 2) school bussing programs that came out of the civil rights movement. The former a discriminatory practice and driver of segregation; and, the latter a band-aid approach to addressing historical inequities. I grew up outside Boston where both these practices are part of the urban fabric and history of the city. My mother recalls my grandfather taking her to Dorchester to witness the poor state of inner-city schools and demonstrate for civil rights – it was the same neighborhood in Boston where my grandfather, the son of immigrants, grew up.

It is these complex narratives of urban change and inequity linked to my family history that piqued my interest in cities. The “environmental” part came later when I learned about resource rights and governance from incredible mentors (Filipina, Jamaican, Sri Lankan) at the World Resources Institute. Applying an environmental lens to look at justice and governance in cities was a natural intersection of my past and present.   

YCELP: What are the key considerations in developing — and implementing — next generation frameworks and indicators?

Alisa: Much of the urban sustainability movement is driven by top-down processes, either through mayors or international actors. A key consideration is how to meaningfully involve urban inhabitants in decision-making. We know that how people live in cities – their consumption and travel patterns –impacts resource use well beyond city borders. One emerging approach is using civic (or citizen) science to engage and empower city dwellers in urban planning decisions. Information technology communication along with low-cost environmental sensors allow people to take a direct role in monitoring environmental quality in their cities – such as air, water, waste, and even traffic. I’m working now to see how crowd-sourced data in cities engage city inhabitants and impact environmental policy.

Developing indicators and tools to promote good urban governance, is likely the biggest challenge to long-term urban sustainability planning. This is because governance is hard to measure and harder to change. That said, people en masse are taking to city streets around the world (Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, New York to name a few) calling for change, so there is a real opportunity to develop ways to channel that energy for improving the quality of life in cities.      

YCELP: Of the places you've traveled and lived, what features stand out as essential to a sustainable city?

Alisa: Transportation makes or breaks a city, both in terms of sustainability and livability. Last spring I traveled to Medellin, Colombia, for the World Urban Forum and got to ride the metrocable, which has literally transformed the city – a single trip up to the hillside neighborhoods now takes 30 minutes instead of 2.5 hours by bus. At first the city’s transformation appears to be a well-glossed party line, but informal conversations with people on the street proved that the changes are real and deep. Making sure urban inhabitants, especially the poor, have safe, sustainable transport that is reasonably priced and timely is essential to the long-term sustainability of any city.  

YCELP: There is often a disconnect between science and policy, but your work has you navigating both. How can we improve communication between scientists and policymakers?

Alisa: Communication is important, but understanding how power dynamics and institutional structures influence decision-making is paramount. For example, even the most proactive mayor championing urban sustainability is still restricted by election cycles and term limits. This is one reason I’m excited to work with the EPI team to see how we can best bring together environmental data and political realities. Fortunately, the EPI has an amazing team of designers, programmers, researchers, and writers to make the data come to life, so these key environmental issues can reach a broader audience.  

YCELP: As a recent graduate from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), what advice would you give to students interested in environmental policy?

Alisa: The environmental community tends to cluster together like-minded thinkers, but to actually take on super wicked environmental problems, we need to think beyond the environment. Recently Gus Speth questioned us “What is an environmental issue? It should be anything that has an impact on the environment.” Which is basically everything.

At Yale, the classes I took at the law school and school of architecture helped me to think about cities and policy from different viewpoints. My advice is to go beyond the environment and redefine the boundaries of how humans impact natural systems and vice versa. Justice issues, as demonstrated by the Peoples Climate March, will be the crux of building the future “environmental” movement and the most important allies will be people that you have yet to meet.  

Contact Alisa (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) and follow her on twitter @azomer.

Posted in: Environmental Performance Measurement

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